Saunders: President Trump proves himself a man of transaction

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Debra Saunders

As President Donald Trump flew to Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday for Easter weekend, there was a lull in his first 100 days — a chance for Washington to reflect on how his presidency is likely to evolve.

There are many question marks, but one sure thing: More than any ideology, Trump values winning itself — whether the contest is over ratings, poll numbers, crowd size or the claim that he gets things done. This president is no ideologue; he’s transactional.

Last week, Americans saw Trump’s transactional strategies in action.

• Feed your political base: The week began as Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch was sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court. At age 49, Gorsuch has decades to carve his mark on the country’s top bench.

NBC’s 2016 election exit poll found that 27 percent of Trump voters saw Supreme Court appointments as their most important issue, while 48 percent rated it as important. This moment alone is what prompted many Americans to vote for Trump.

• Declare victory often: As a candidate, Trump proclaimed, “NATO is obsolete.” Wednesday in the East Room, Trump stood next to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and announced NATO is “no longer obsolete.”

Had NATO changed so much since Trump won the White House? Not really. What changed is that Trump wanted to display allies who support his missile strike against Syria.

GOP strategist and frequent Trump critic John Weaver cited Trump’s NATO declaration as an example of Trump’s declaring “victory when nothing has changed,” just as Trump did a victory lap because “we closed an airport in Syria for two hours.” To Weaver this tactic “might satisfy the 30 percent of the hardcore supporters in the country that he has, but it doesn’t change reality.”

• Live in the present: “I try to learn from the past, but I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present,” Trump wrote in “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”

Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics wonders if the present is all Trump knows. “A lot of time, he may be hearing an angle on an issue for the first time,” Kondik said.

That seemed to be the case when Trump gave an interview in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. Trump talked about his effort to convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”

• Make people believe they can persuade you: Trump told Fox Business News’ Maria Bartiromo that he expects to pass a version of his American Health Care Act with “zero” Democrats and “close to 100 percent of the Republicans.” The same day he told The Wall Street Journal, “What I think should happen — and will happen — is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.”

Huh? It’s Trump’s way of telling both parties that he will deal with anyone, much as a TV lawyer announces he is willing to reach a plea bargain with whichever suspect talks first.

“Ultimately his best route on health care is a path that can get Democratic support,” Weaver opined, even if Trump alienates the righter-than-right Freedom Caucus.

But Kondik doubts Democrats want to deal when they see the potential for Trump to fail on his own: “I do think that Trump is a naturally transactional person and he may want to be a transactional president, but there may not be a lot of people in the government willing to transact with him.”

But when your critics think you have moved into their camp, opposition can soften. As MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a frequent Trump nag, tweeted, “Trump is reversing policies on NATO, Russia, China and other foreign policy positions. And all of these reversals are good for U.S. standing.”

• Use your power: Thursday, the United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” on ISIS caves in Afghanistan. “What I do is, I authorize my military,” Trump said. (And North Korea is watching.)