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Donald Trump: Great For Ratings, But What About Governing?

Through a video camera viewfinder, President Trump is seen addressing the crowd during the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.
Ricky Carioti
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Through a video camera viewfinder, President Trump is seen addressing the crowd during the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

Let's get this out of the way: health care and border-wall funding are probably not happening this week.

There isn't even a bill written for health care, and while conservatives like the draft language that's circulating, moderates don't.

It's the same problem Republicans have had from the beginning — appeal to conservatives, lose the moderates; appeal to moderates, lose the conservatives.

It's like a water balloon — no matter which end you push on, it still pops.

"If it happens, and we have the votes this week, great," White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Monday. "If it's next week, or the week after--." Or...

On the border wall, President Trump appears to be dropping his funding demands (for now) and punting to this fall. That's what he told conservative media outlets in a private reception at the White House Monday night — despite his tweeting about its importance that morning:

Then, he tweeted Tuesday morning that he hasn't changed his position on the wall and that "it will get built."

Importantly, he didn't say when, though.

The bottom line is this: Republicans have until Friday midnight to fund the government and keep the lights on. That happens to coincide with Trump's 100th day in office, which is Saturday.

Rational GOP leaders want to avoid a government shutdown at all costs. And make no mistake: if there is one, Republicans will be blamed, no matter the spin.

When shutdowns have happened in the recent past, it's been when there's divided government. That is not the situation now. Republicans are in charge of the House, the Senate and the White House.

They own it.

Trump is even hyping that he will unveil a tax plan Wednesday (though early signs indicate there might not be much new from the already unveiled during the campaign).

And he's talking tough on trade again, now with... Canada.

In that same meeting with conservative media outlets, Trump also floated the idea of a 20 percent tariff on Canadian lumber, a long-running issue, especially in the Pacific Northwest. And then he picked another fight with Canada Tuesday morning — this time about milk.

The Canadians weren't going to the woodshed lying down.

OK, "disagrees strongly" is a pretty polite smackdown, but, hey, it's Canada.

So what is Trump doing with all this drama?

In a word: ratings.

"It's almost like it's ratings week at the White House," Rick Tyler, the former Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich spokesman, said Tuesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

Donald Trump is obsessed with ratings. He's tweeted about "ratings" 79 times since he launched his presidential run in June 2015. He wants to make sure he has the highest-rated 100 days ever (or at least since FDR).

Even though he's been downplaying the 100-day artifice recently, he's also hyped it — here, here, on video here, in an infographic here, even boasting two months ago that he's "done more than anybody." The White House even launched a website devoted to it Tuesday.

"[I]t's interesting, I have, seem to get very high ratings," Trump told the AP in a wide-ranging interview late last week.

The question was about how he gets along with Democrats and how people vote.

He went on...

"I definitely --, you know, [Fox News Sunday host] Chris Wallace had 9.2 million people, it's the highest in the history of the show. I have all the ratings for all those morning shows. When I go, they go double, triple. Chris Wallace, look back during the Army-Navy football game, I did his show that morning. It had 9.2 million people. It's the highest they've ever had. On any, on air, [CBS 'Face the Nation' host John] Dickerson had 5.2 million people. It's the highest for 'Face the Nation' or as I call it, 'Deface the Nation.'"

And then he said this:

"It's the highest for 'Deface the Nation' since the World Trade Center. Since the World Trade Center came down. It's a tremendous advantage."

There's become a rule in politics — don't compare to Nazis. Well, don't compare to 9/11 is probably a good one to add.

There have been other examples recently of Trump's ratings obsession.

When someone wondered aloud in Trump's presence last month if Spicer might be fired, the Washington Post reported his answer was "swift and unequivocal":

"I'm not firing Sean Spicer," he said, "that guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in."

Everyone tunes in.

For almost two years, everyone has tuned in. TV ratings and Web traffic were through the roof. Trump got more free media than any candidate during the presidential campaign — for good or ill.

It's a lesson he learned in the New York media market — the only bad publicity is no publicity at all.

That might work in the branding, reality-TV and tabloid world Trump comes from, but it's an odd way to think that's how governing works.

It's already being tested — with limited results, so far, for this president.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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