Donald Trump doesn’t scare Washington anymore.
That was the lesson from a week of stinging defeats for the President, from the halls of Congress to the homepage of Breitbart. Not long ago, Trump could tank a company’s stock price with a Twitter blast and cow Republican allies into silence when he trampled political norms.
But these days, Trump doesn’t have much juice in the capital.
The President was disengaged throughout much of the Senate’s dramatic fight over healthcare reform, even though his administration made the repeal of the Affordable Care Act its first big legislative priority. When Trump finally waded into the fray late in the game—after Republican leaders had failed to rally the votes for the plan they crafted and Trump blessed—his tweeted threats failed to sway GOP Senate holdouts.
Lisa Murkowski was the primary target of Trump’s ire. On Wednesday, the President took aim at the Republican senator from Alaska, tweeting that Murkowski, a moderate in her fourth term, “really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!” Then Trump tapped his Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, to ramp up the pressure. Murkowski received a phone call warning that a vote against the bill could jeopardize her state’s chances of getting approval from the administration on energy projects.
How did Murkowski respond? By standing her ground. First, she went public with the threat, which embarrassed the administration and led Democrats to threaten an investigation. Then she went to the Senate floor early Friday morning and cast one of the three votes required to tank the Republican repeal plan.
Sen. John McCain, whom Trump targeted for derision during the 2016 campaign, joined Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins in voting against the bill. His decisive vote followed impassioned pleas from Vice President Mike Pence and a call from Trump himself, Republican officials say.
When the President went to war on his own attorney general this week, conservative media outlets normally friendly to Trump leapt to Jeff Sessions’ defense instead. Breitbart News, one of Trump’s top cheerleaders, called Sessions “a man who embodies the movement that elected Donald Trump President.” Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh criticized Trump’s handling of the spat. Outside groups rallied Tea Party leaders and lawmakers to Sessions’ defense, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley publicly warned his committee would not consider another nominee for the post this year. The battles lines had been drawn, and conservatives stood on Sessions’ side.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans were making life difficult for Trump on another sensitive front. Both houses of Congress voted nearly unanimously to impose new sanctions on Russia, sending a bill to Trump’s desk that the White House has criticized. The move put the President in a bind: veto the bill—which Congress can override anyway—and risk looking as though he was taking a soft line on Moscow in the midst of deepening investigations into whether members of his campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Or sign it and risk retaliation from President Vladimir Putin.
White House officials expect Trump to sign the legislation, but to issue a signing statement outlining his reservations on the bill. What’s clear from the vote tally is that House and Senate Republicans didn’t much care about putting the President in a predicament. After all, they’d watched Trump twist arms to help get the healthcare repeal bill over the line in the House, only to turn around and call the legislation “mean.”
Even the military pushed pause on their commander in chief’s orders this week. In a series of tweets this week, Trump announced that transgender men and women would no longer be able to serve in the U.S. armed forces. The decree caught the Pentagon by surprise, with even the Joint Chiefs left unaware beforehand of Trump’s order. The Pentagon swiftly put the burden of clarifying the policy on the White House, and informed commanders that Trump’s tweets had no practical effect until that happened.
Trump remains a formidable foe. He has the bully pulpit of the presidency at his disposal and a loyal base that has largely stuck with him through the fumbles and controversies that marred his opening months in office.
But the series of sharp rebukes this week highlighted how quickly Trump’s political capital has eroded. Presidents are typically near the apex of their influence in the months after an election, riding high off their inauguration and enjoying a honeymoon in the polls. But Trump is shattering convention there as well. His approval rating hasn’t been north of 40% in more than a month, setting new records for unpopularity so soon into an administration.
Maybe it’s no wonder few people in town seem afraid of him.