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Analysis: The Art of the ‘Omni-Bluff’

Even GOP sources gripe about Trump’s failed veto threat

President Donald Trump gestures at the omnibus spending bill at a Friday news conference at the White House. He signed the measure despite threatening earlier to veto it. Also pictured, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump gestures at the omnibus spending bill at a Friday news conference at the White House. He signed the measure despite threatening earlier to veto it. Also pictured, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump cried wolf on Friday, signing a massive omnibus spending bill after threatening to veto it, and got nothing in return. Call it the art of the non-bluff.

While Trump and his White House continued Tuesday to deal with reports of a brief affair with a porn actress and her allegations of physical threats and then a payment to remain quiet, current and former White House and congressional aides warn that his “omni-bluff” will have deeper consequences.

It is a tactic Trump used for years as a real estate developer in New York and around the globe: “Know when to walk away from the table,” he tweeted in July 2011, quoting from his book “The Art of the Deal.” Only, by Friday morning, there was no one else left around the table: It was just the president and a 2,232-page spending bill, a $1.3 trillion measure his senior aides had painstakingly helped write.

Trump’s non-bluff managed to generate rare public Republican annoyance at one of his most brazen — and, as one source called it, “self-destructive” — acts as president.

Watch: Trump’s Empty Veto Threat of Spending Bill Could Have a Big Pricetag

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“The White House was in the negotiating room the WHOLE time,” one House GOP aide with knowledge of the omnibus process said in an email Tuesday, using all capital letters to make a point. “If the president wasn’t aware of what was in the bill, that’s on them.”

Broken trust

Sources warned this week that Trump’s veto bluff undermines his administration’s credibility and will likely cause even members of his own party to question his reliability as a negotiating partner on spending and other major legislation.

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“The president hurt his standing with both caucuses and assured that nothing important will pass before November elections, except 2019 appropriations bills — unless Trump tries to renege on that,” said Steve Bell, a former senior Senate aide now with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

But potential damage to the party Trump is supposed to lead could go even deeper.

“And, in the midst, he undercut [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and [Speaker Paul D.] Ryan in their own caucuses, surely the conservative wings,” Bell said.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that a few days after Trump’s big bluff, Washington was suddenly awash in speculation that Ryan might be eyeing an exit. His top spokeswoman, however, said this week the Wisconsin Republican has no plans to leave Congress.

“Trump sold the notion in the campaign that he was a skilled negotiator and it would apply to any situation,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official now with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. “But his entire approach is chaos. But it’s chaos without a purpose, made worse because his mind never seems to get made up on any issue.”

“Crying wolf on the omnibus budget bill was nuts,” she added. “He has backtracked on that, and on immigration, and on guns. … His spontaneity is self-defeating.”

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Kamarck’s read on the state of play is that members lost confidence in the president as a negotiating partner shortly after he and Republicans failed — multiple times — to pass a bill repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law. “Members discovered then that he cannot lead in a consistent way,” she said.

Several senior GOP leadership aides did not respond to requests for comment about the potential ramifications of Trump’s omni-bluff.

Democrats pounce

But a senior Democratic Senate aide said, “Friday was more of the same from the president and the administration.”

“Nobody in the administration can speak for the president, not even the president himself,” the senior aide said. “He flip-flopped on guns and immigration in front of the whole country because he changes his mind more often than he changes his socks. With this president, nothing is done until it’s signed, sealed and delivered.”

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah on Monday described Trump as having been “very frustrated with the legislation that he was given … in the eleventh hour.” Shah repeated another threat the president made Friday, saying his boss’s “message to leaders in Congress of both parties is that if something similar happens again, he’s much more inclined to veto it.”

Sources indicated this week that Trump’s artless and short-lived walking away from the omnibus negotiating table for about five hours Friday only adds to the Democratic talking point heading into November’s midterms: that this White House and administration — and their GOP Hill allies by extension — are too chaotic to be trusted with controlling the legislative and executive branches.

That’s why Republican incumbents and candidates are likely busily simplifying their collective message for voters, according to Bell.

“‘Let Trump be Trump and don’t pay attention to his antics’ has to be the internal thinking of GOP leadership now,” he said.

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