Trump's attempts at looking strong backfire when they fall apart

Trump wants to appear powerful, unaware of the extent to which these efforts backfire when he discovers that he doesn't have the authority he wishes he had
Image: The Capitol in Washington on March 23, 2019.
The Capitol in Washington on March 23, 2019.Alex Brandon / AP
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By Steve Benen

Among the problems with the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic is that the Trump administration is burdened by vacancies in relevant positions. The White House has struggled for several years with this -- at times, Donald Trump has even boasted about the empty offices -- but the acute effects are now hard to ignore.

The president raised the prospect yesterday of a dramatic White House response to the circumstances. NBC News reported:

President Donald Trump threatened Wednesday to adjourn Congress so he can unilaterally install nominees to federal positions that he said are pertinent to the coronavirus crisis, an unprecedented move that critics likened to a dictatorship. Trump said the Senate should either approve his nominees or adjourn so he can "recess appoint" them.

"If the House will not agree to that adjournment, I will exercise my constitutional authority to adjourn both chambers of Congress," he said during a press briefing. "The current practice of leaving town while conducting phony pro-forma sessions is a dereliction of duty that the American people cannot afford during this crisis. It is a scam what they do."

Trump added, "Perhaps it's never been done before. Nobody's even sure if it has. But we're going to do it."

Let's clarify a few things. When Trump said "nobody's even sure" if a president has tried to adjourn Congress, that's not true: we are sure that it's never happened. As a Roll Call report noted, the Republican was pointing to a constitutional power that has "never been used in the history of the republic."

What's more, when he said he and his team are "going to do it," that was wrong, too. The explanation gets a bit technical, but Politico had a helpful overview explaining why -- as a procedural matter -- Trump wouldn't be able to pull off such a stunt, even if he wanted to. Politico called the very idea "absurd."

Let's also not forget that many of Trump's nominees are ridiculous and are currently stuck in committee because Senate Republicans aren't sure they can advance the president's picks in good conscience. It's probably why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demurred yesterday in response to Trump's misguided threat.

But putting aside these relevant details, there's a larger question to consider: why in the world would the president float an idea like this?

Part of the problem is that Donald Trump has never fully familiarized himself with how the federal government works, and his civic blind-spots lead him to blurt out ideas he doesn't recognize as foolish.

But the other part of the equation is nearly as important: Trump wants to appear strong and powerful, unaware of the extent to which these efforts backfire when he discovers that he doesn't have the authority he wishes he had.

Indeed, it was just this week when the president adopted a radical posture, stating his belief that he has "the ultimate authority" over state decisions regarding the coronavirus crisis. "The president of the United States calls the shots," Trump told reporters, adding, "When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that's the way it's going to be. It's total. It's total. And the governors know that."

A day later, apparently having been told that his declarations were completely wrong, Trump retreated.

One day later, however, the president was at it again, pretending he's going to adjourn Congress so that he can appoint nominees of dubious qualifications to powerful administrative posts. Sometime today, I suspect someone will deliver the bad news that he lacks the power to follow through on the threat.

Which, ironically, will leave Trump looking even weaker than he did before.