On Wednesday, Donald Trump signed the most influential legislation of his presidency to date: A raft of new sanctions against Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The bill sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, which sounds like a win for an otherwise sclerotic body politic. But it actually represents an embarrassing defeat for Trump, who lobbied against it and called it "unconstitutional" when he finally signed it.
The bill is certain a rebuke against him, as it shows even Republicans in Congress don't trust him to be sufficiently tough on foreign policy, especially when it comes to Russia. But the hissy fits Trump has been throwing over this sanctions situation threaten more lasting damage to his relationship with Congress and his agenda.
The sanctions bill is a sprawling document, which went through many rounds of debate. In its final form, it punishes Iran and North Korea for recent missile tests and Russia for its annexation of Crimea, exploits in Ukraine, support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and meddling in the US 2016 election. It also contains a provision limiting a president's ability to revoke or ease sanctions, requiring about a month for Congress to review any such actions for a possible legislative veto.
Trump has a long history of doubting that Russia was responsible for hacks targeting his Democratic opponents, even though US intelligence agencies say that it was. He's also sounded oddly conciliatory notes toward Russia. That attitude seemingly played a role in Congress taking sanctions into its own hands.
"Congress has come to the conclusion that the president cannot be trusted on an issue such as relations with Russia," said presidential scholar George Edwards III. "Many see him as ignorant, while others also see him as rationalizing to meet his personal needs. The Russian sanctions bill is an example of an emboldened Congress, including Republicans, pushing back."
"The substance of it is very normal," said Ken Collier, a scholar of White House-congressional relations, of the broad sanctions in the bill. Nor is it odd that Congress would attempt to claw back oversight after years of slowly expanding presidential power. But the speed with which legislators passed the bill "and the degree to which they proceeded without spending a whole lot of time in consultation with the executive branch makes it a little bit more of a back of their hand" to Trump, especially as his team actively tried to lobby against limits on his sanctions controls.
The president obviously didn't want to sign the bill, which limited his power, second-guessed his foreign policy, acknowledged Russian meddling in the election that brought him to power, angered the countries targeted by the sanctions, and even upset America's European allies. Trump apparently floated the idea of vetoing the bill—although his aides tried to claim he'd only do so because he wanted to hit Russia with harder sanctions.
But the bill had so much support as to be veto-proof. So Trump let it sit on his desk from its passage last Friday until Wednesday and then, as Edwards put it, "signed the bill to avoid the humiliation of a veto override by a Congress in which his party has majorities in both houses."
Collier notes that most presidents have showdowns like this with Congress , though they rarely happen so early in a term. The legislative body often feels the need to push back when it's been leaned on too hard, demonstrating its ability to govern and its independence from the president in the service of the people. "Voting against the sanctions bill would have been tough in any circumstances" given its popular provisions, explained Collier, "but with Trump, it would have been a really fun vote to take to show him that 'he can't push us around.'"
It's not unusual for presidents to publicly object to actions taken by Congress. Last year, when Barack Obama's veto of a bill allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia was overridden, he called it a "mistake" and criticized Congress for not doing the "hard," but correct, thing. Both Obama and George W. Bush have used signing statements to criticize legislation they had a problem with. Trump did the same, claiming that the bill overreached when it cut into his powers with respect to sanctions, but stating that he signed it "for the sake of national unity."
However, while Obama or Bush might have stopped at a strong critique like that, Trump took things much further. "Right now we've got a president who tends to take these things very personally and falls into this thinking of, 'If you're not with me, you're my enemy,'" said Collier.
True to that spirit, Trump used parts of his two Wednesday post-signing statements to attack Congress as woefully inept, calling up their failure to pass healthcare reform and blaming them for deteriorating Russian relations. He then launched some rage-filled tweets against Congress on Thursday.
According to Michael Wagner, an expert on political polarization and electorate behaviors, this angry spin will likely play well with Trump's core base of supporters. "Many of them believe that things would be much better if only the Congress would work with the president," he said. "His supporters have been unwilling or unable to accept the president's most pressing defeats."
But to the wider electorate, Trump's whining about this bill reads like an apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And to Congress, it's a substantial shot across the bow.
"Trump has already demonstrated both deferential behavior towards Russia and a willingness to lash out at congressional Republicans when things aren't going his way," said Congress watcher Molly Reynolds. Republicans have pushed back on some of Trump's more outrageous behavior, but have largely voted for Trump's agenda, which is mostly their agenda too.
But this latest retaliation comes as rifts have been opening up between Trump and the GOP over his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It also comes as Trump's approval ratings continue to crater, making loyalty to him less important politically. There are still signs of cooperation between Trump and Republicans on major issues, but every new spat, especially a public one like this, sours the already decaying relationship between the president and the legislature.
"That's where Trump may differ so much from his predecessors," said Collier of this cumulative cooperation breakdown. "He really wants to hold onto losses and lash out in a way that's hard to step back from. Looking at history, Congress doesn't like these kinds of rebukes."
Will this break whatever remaining rapport Trump has with Congress? "We can only really recognize a shift after it happens," said Wagner.
Even if Trump's fits over the sanctions bill haven't destroyed his relationship with Congress, any damage they did will be exacerbated by upcoming votes that Trump may find uncomfortable "The next major items Congress will have on its agenda are raising the debt limit and some sort of measure to prevent a government shutdown at the end of September, followed by tax reform," said Reynolds. "Each of these items will almost certainly generate situations in which the president is not able to get something he claims to want from Congress, as happened with healthcare. He may well levy attacks against Congressional Republicans in response."
So there's another mess to look forward to.
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