Here’s a riddle: How can a president not yet a week on the job already demonstrate such an uncanny mastery for his office’s soft power while simultaneously appearing intent on destroying his own mandate? It’s confounding to witness, but Donald Trump managed to do both over the last two days.
The president kicked off Tuesday by meeting with the heads of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, a sector he regularly blasted on the trail for underinvesting in the United States. In full Apprentice mode with news cameras rolling, Trump challenged the CEOs to add more jobs and capacity at home in return for lighter tax and regulatory burdens. After the meeting, the three executives heaped praise on Trump, with Ford chief Mark Fields talking up the president’s “courage” for walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and heralding a new era of cooperation between the industry and government that could spawn a “renaissance in American manufacturing.” Foreign car makers weren’t invited, but not to be outdone, later in the day, Toyota announced it will be adding 400 jobs to an existing SUV plant in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana.
The ongoing parade of chief executives making their way since the election first to Trump Tower, and now, since his swearing-in, to the West Wing, is all the more remarkable considering how the country’s corporate leaders treated Trump during the campaign. Not a single CEO in the Fortune 100 endorsed him. Indeed, many gold-plated names from the business world who’d previously identified as Republican made a public show of aligning themselves with Hillary Clinton.
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s negotiator-in-chief approach will yield real, meaningful results for growth. But the strategy is a lot less likely to succeed if the president, who’s already suffering historically low approval ratings, insists on squandering what goodwill he’s got by chasing baseless conspiracy theories. His claim—made behind closed doors to Congressional leaders on Monday night, and then the subject of wall-to-wall coverage on Tuesday—that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the presidential election renewed grave questions about his ability to grapple with observed reality. And by forcing his staff to toe his line, he risks not only stepping on the administration’s preferred story of the day but doing irreparable longterm damage to his entire team’s credibility.
The president doubled-down Wednesday morning, tweeting that he’ll seek a “major investigation” into voter fraud, for which no evidence exists, and will seek to “strengthen up voting procedures” based on the results. At best, it appears he simply can’t accept his own win, since it didn’t include a popular vote majority; at worst, he’s aiming to construct a pretense for rolling back voting rights protections. Either way, it’s a waste of precious time and capital he could be devoting to jobs.