By Dan Balz,
President Trump recorded a remarkable trifecta on Thursday. In fewer than 24 hours, he was rebuked by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the chief scout executive for the Boy Scouts America.
On a day when so many eyes and ears in Washington were riveted on the escalating feud between White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, no one should lose sight of the incoming fire that arrived at the White House.
It didn’t come from the hard left or the Democratic resistance. Instead, it came from people who represent communities or constituencies considered friendly to the president: the Republican Party, the military, and a civic organization known for its promotion of patriotism and traditional values.
The rebukes were carefully worded so as not to be true rebukes, but they were unmistakable in their intent. In their own ways, the messages to the president carried a common theme: they were asking him to stop behaving as he has been behaving. Trump has crossed so many lines, as a candidate and as president, that the public often is numbed to what he says and does. Not this time. Perhaps that’s because each of the rebukes was about a different transgression, all of them coming in the period of only a few days.
It’s far too early to know whether they mark a turning point in how people who have been at least nominally supportive of the president will approach him in the future, but Trump ought not to be dismissive of their significance. The critiques may not change the president’s behavior, but as a marker of the rising concern about the president even from allies, they couldn’t have been more obvious.
The first of the three came from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the generally even-tempered chairman of the Judiciary Committee. It was in response to the president’s repeated tweets and statements brutalizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president will not forgive Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and as his blood pressure has risen week by week, he decided to lash out.
The tweets attacking Sessions and the president’s comments — “Time will tell,” Trump said when asked about the attorney general’s future — sparked fears that the president was looking to fire Sessions or force him to resign, with the obvious next step of appointing someone who in one way or another could contain or get rid of the Russia investigation now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller.
In terse language, Grassley made clear he would not consider holding confirmation hearings for a replacement any time this year. That would leave the Justice Department in the hands of Rod J. Rosenstein, the career prosecutor who is now deputy attorney general and someone who also has earned Trump’s disrespect for having appointed Mueller.
Grassley’s stamp of disapproval was an extension of the chorus of support for Sessions from his former colleagues in the Senate, particularly those in the Republican Party. They responded to the president’s public humiliation of the attorney general and the implied threat to Mueller with varying degrees of alarm. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said there would be “hell to pay” if Trump decides to force Sessions out and rein in Mueller’s operation.
For the most part, Republicans on Capitol Hill have sought to avert their gaze whenever the president’s tweets or actions spark controversy. So there has been nothing like this so far in Trump’s presidency. Whether that’s because it involves a former member of the Capitol Hill club or because of the potential implications for a constitutional crisis if the president tries to scuttle the Mueller investigation, the response to this has been different.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was responding to a different controversy, the president’s sudden and unexpected announcement — through Twitter — that transgender individuals would be banned from military service.
Amid confusion within the ranks, Dunsford issued a statement saying there would be “no modification” to current policy until the Pentagon receives an actual directive from the president and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has had adequate time to evaluate it and decides how to implement it. In other words, the Pentagon will not allow the president to change policy through a tweet.
As was reported in the hours after Trump’s tweet, Pentagon officials were caught by surprise by the proposed ban. The reaction to the ban was immediate, starting with the LGBT community and transgender members of the military and extending to Democratic and Republican lawmakers and many citizens. If Trump was simply playing to the culturally conservative part of his political base, he miscalculated the overall state of public opinion — and perhaps his own military.
The third rebuke came in two stages. It took the leaders of the Boy Scouts several days to issue a full criticism of the president’s appearance at the 20th annual National Jamboree. Presidents are always invited to address scouts at the jamboree. Those who have done so in the past have stuck to obvious themes of service, civic virtue and pride in America.
Trump treated his appearance as just another raucous political rally. He was partisan, attacking rival Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama. He was offensive, talking to the young Americans about the “hottest” parties in New York and a rich friend who he said did things that he couldn’t reveal to such a young audience.
No doubt unwilling to directly criticize the president, the Scout association initially issued an anodyne statement reminding everyone that the Boy Scouts are open to all ideas and generally free of politics and partisanship.
On Thursday, Michael Surbaugh, the chief scout executive, went farther, issuing a lengthy apology on the Boy Scout website. The good works by scouts at the jamboree, he said, had been “overshadowed by the remarks offered by the president of the United States.” He extended “sincere apologies” to those offended and said injecting partisan politics into the event was “never our intent.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the apology at her briefing. She said she hadn’t read it. She was she was there at the jamboree with the president and saw nothing inappropriate in his words. She noted as well that many of the scouts were cheering the president, which was correct. Older and more experienced members of the scouting family knew that the president crossed a line and the reaction was swift and harsh.
The Pentagon will carry out the transgender directive (assuming it arrives from the White House), once it has been reviewed and evaluated. Trump is their commander in chief. The Boy Scouts will retreat quickly now that they have apologized to the president’s critics. They are not a combative or confrontational organization. Republican lawmakers will approach their battles with the president gingerly. They are risk averse about offending Trump’s loyalists.
Still, the triple criticism, on three separate issues, from the Trump-friendly side of the American electorate should be a signal to the president. But is he listening?