After Controversy Over Condolence Calls, Can Trump And The White House Refocus?
Updated Monday, Oct. 23 at 6:08 p.m. ET
When backed into a corner, President Trump digs in and fights back.
It's what he's done as president, it's what he did as a candidate and it's what he did as a businessman.
Just go listen to NPR's Embedded podcast and a recent episode about Trump's fight with Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., over things as petty as a flagpole at his golf course, putting hedges in front of houses he thought were ugly and the name of a road. He wanted his name on it.
He had been greeted as something of a conquering hero in that town. But the relationship soured after lawsuits and threats. So much so that the Republican town that voted for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
"I think the president has a bad habit when he's asked a question that he is uncomfortable with or can't quite come up with the right answer — he usually tries to reach out for scapegoats," Leon Panetta, former defense secretary under President Obama and chief of staff to Bill Clinton, told NPR's All Things Considered, "and the first scapegoat this president seems to always turn to is President Obama.
"And when he talked about him not making calls that was a terrible mistake. And what bothers me is that it detracts from the main focus here, and the main focus has to be on the brave and courageous individuals that are willing to go out there and fight and die for America, and their families. There is some comfort here for all of this dispute, that maybe America again will take the time to remember that there are young men and women in uniform that are fighting and dying for this country. That's something sometimes we tend to forget."
Part of the problem for Americans is the disconnect Panetta highlights between the military and the rest of society. In 1945, just before the end of World War II, there were 12 million active servicemembers. Now, there are just over a million or so.
"They're the best 1 percent this country produces," White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said Thursday in his defense of President Trump in the White House briefing room.
It's actually less than 1 percent. That number in 1945 represented roughly 9 percent of the country's total population. Now, the number of active-duty servicemembers is only about 0.4 percent of the population.
"Most of you, as Americans, don't know them," Kelly continued. "Many of you don't know anyone that knows any one of them."
Americans are far less engaged in the debate over worldwide American missions than they likely would be if they had a daughter or son or neighbor in the fight. That has to have an effect on American society and policymaking.
Trump highlighted that sacrifice at a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House Monday. He honored retired Army Captain Gary M. Rose, who was a medic during Vietnam and saved a helicopter full of soldiers after it was shot down.
But there are questions as to whether Trump can move on and keep his focus on where staff like Kelly would like it to be.
Trump, for example, has shown no signs of wanting to move on from the fight with a Democratic congresswoman. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida revealed details of a conversation Trump had with a widow of one of the soldiers killed in Niger.
And Trump's Twitter fingers were tested again Monday morning after Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was one of the four killed in Niger, spoke out.
The president "said that 'he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways,'" Johnson recounted on ABC's Good Morning America. "It made me cry, because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and couldn't remember my husband's name."
Trump then said he had her husband's name on a report in front of him, Johnson said, describing Trump as "stumbling on my husband's name. That's what hurt me most. He's out there fighting for our country, why can't you remember his name? ... He was an awesome soldier."
She described herself as "very, very upset and hurt. It made me cry even worse."
Trump wasted no time defending his handling of the call and his use of Sgt. Johnson's name, tweeting shortly after the interview:
Johnson's funeral was Saturday. The interview and Trump's response threaten to extend the controversy — which has been uncomfortable to see laid bare — for another week.
Trump can't seem to let it go, even as the controversy descended into one about race — again during this presidency — by the end of last week.
Here was the way Midwin Charles, writing for Essence magazine, framed it Friday, for example:
"At a time when Black women bury their sons and daughters as a result of gun violence, police brutality and service to this country, the lack of respect from this president is unbearable. Worse, he sets a dangerous precedent on how Black women should be perceived and treated in America."
Trump has the opportunity to refocus this week, as Panetta suggests is necessary, on other subjects important to him and the country — like the budget and a tax overhaul with a trip to Capitol Hill the president has set for Tuesday.
There's also the opioid epidemic; he's said he'll formally designate it a national emergency this week, although much remains unclear about the details of what that will mean.
Trump heads to Capitol Hill to lobby Republicans, but can he move the ball on policy?
NPR's Susan Davis, congressional correspondent, writes:
President Trump heads to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet with Senate Republicans at their private weekly lunch. It is the first time Trump will attend the weekly lunch as president. Republicans are expected to plan out their fall agenda, with only seven legislative weeks remaining and a to-list that is growing.
Republicans are sensitive to the fact that they haven't delivered much in the way of legislative victories in the first year of full GOP control of Washington. While the president has foisted on to lawmakers a number of unanticipated items, like immigration legislation affecting so-called DREAMers and tougher sanctions on Iran, there is nothing more important to the GOP agenda than passing tax legislation before the end of the year.
Republicans largely believe that enacting sweeping tax cuts for American businesses and families will inoculate the party from a feared backlash in the 2018 midterm elections over the party's failures to make good on its promise to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
The president's efforts to address the opioid crisis have come up short so far. Is anything substantively different with his declaration of a "national emergency"?
NPR's Tamara Keith, White House correspondent, who has covered the opioid crisis extensively, notes:
President Trump says this week he will declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency. If he actually does it, Trump will be following through on a pledge he made more than two months ago.
On Aug. 10, the president said, "This is a national emergency, and we are drawing documents now." But there has been little sign since that the administration really was drawing up the documents.
According to the latest numbers, nearly 150 Americans are dying each day from drug overdoses, the majority of those from heroin, fentanyl and other opioids.
"My guess is, we're going to see deaths go up than go down. I think we're on the wrong side of curve here," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently said. He's chairman of President Trump's opioid commission, which is set to release a final set of recommendations Nov. 1.
But, it is such a significant crisis that on July 31 the commission issued an interim report with a recommendation it described as urgent: that the president declare a national emergency, to free up resources and bring increased attention to something that every three weeks is killing as many people as died on Sept. 11.
"Your declaration would empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the Executive Branch even further to deal with this loss of life," the commission report noted. "You, Mr. President, are the only person who can bring this type of intensity to the emergency and we believe you have the will to do so and to do so immediately."
Tackling the opioid crisis was a key Trump campaign promise. The question this week is whether he will follow through with action.
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