Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.