Analysis

Who Will Trump Blame After Tuesday?

The president typically finds someone else at fault when things go wrong, and that pattern will likely hold if Republicans do badly in the midterms.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Nov. 5, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump was at his most earnest when he told reporters on the South Lawn last Wednesday, “I’m not going to blame anybody” if Republicans suffer losses in the midterm elections. Don’t bet on it. If there has been one consistent verity in Trump’s White House, it’s that the president never takes the blame for setbacks and always finds fault elsewhere. If his party loses big, don’t expect him to copy President George W. Bush, who called his defeats in 2006 “a thumping,” or President Obama, who said Democratic losses in 2010 were “a shellacking.”

Already, in preparation for expected losses in Tuesday’s voting, the president has laid the groundwork for shifting the blame away from the Oval Office. Part of that was his tweet last Wednesday chiding House Speaker Paul Ryan for dissenting from the president’s view on birthright citizenship: “Paul Ryan should be focusing on holding the Majority rather than giving his opinions on Birthright Citizenship, something he knows nothing about.”

Privately, the president has told aides he blames Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for a failure to recruit better candidates. And, even though he publicly told Republicans “you’re voting for me” when they vote for other Republicans, he privately insists the midterms are not a referendum on him, seeing his 2020 reelection bid as the only one that matters. Publicly, he has also suggested that he might blame China for meddling on behalf of the Democrats. “They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade,” he said at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in September. He has also said that Russia “will be pushing very hard for the Democrats” because “no president has been tougher on Russia than me.”

He also is ready to blame what he called “this ‘bomb’ stuff”—when bombs were mailed to several prominent Democrats—for taking him off message. And he chafed at the news focus on the deadly shootings at the Pittsburgh synagogue. Consistently, he has said he believes he will bear no responsibility for GOP losses. “No,” he told the Associated Press in an Oct. 16 interview. “I think I’m helping people. I don’t believe anybody’s ever had this kind of an impact.”

That refusal to admit fault has been seen before in this White House. Here are 10 other instances:

Loss of the popular vote in 2016:

It continues to irk the president that he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. Shortly after the election, he contended he did win it “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” On his fourth day in office, he made a similar claim, telling a bipartisan group of congressional leaders that he would have won if 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants had not voted. He then appointed a commission to document that claim, only to have it disbanded when it could find no evidence to support him.

Bad days in the stock market:

After more than a year of boasting about record highs in the stock market, Trump was thrown off his stride when losses last month wiped out all the gains of the year. Not surprisingly, he blamed the Democrats. “The Stock Market is up massively since the Election, but is now taking a little pause – people want to see what happens with the Midterms,” he tweeted on Oct. 30. In another tweet the same day, he blamed the Federal Reserve as well, writing, “If the Fed backs off and starts talking a little more Dovish, I think we’re going to be right back....” In various interviews, he attacked the Fed for “raising rates too fast” and being his “biggest threat,” “going wild,” and “going loco.” Repeatedly, he dismissed suggestions that his tariff-fueled trade war might have played a role.

His family-separation policy at the border:

When the public recoiled at pictures of mothers being separated from their children at the border with Mexico, the president refused to acknowledge that this was the result of a policy set by his administration. Instead, he insisted he was simply following a long-standing law and he was powerless to change the policy unless Democrats acted. “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents....” he tweeted. At a White House meeting, he added, “We have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law.” As The Washington Post concluded after checking the White House assertions, “These claims are false.” (And they ignore the reality that Democrats are in the minority in Congress and unable to change laws.)

The role his rhetoric plays in setting the national tone:

When Trump opponents received bombs in the mail, the president was less than sure-footed or swift in his reaction, never calling any of the intended victims and never acknowledging that his frequent attacks could have influenced the perpetrator. When others made a link, Trump howled in protest. Instead, he blamed the news media. “The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country. Actually, it is their Fake & Dishonest reporting which is causing problems far greater than they understand,” he tweeted on Oct. 28. The next day, he added, “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately and fairly....” He reacted similarly after the shooting in Pittsburgh, and in his rallies he continued to encourage chants of “Lock her up!” and to mock several of the Democrats who had received bombs.

The federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017:

The president exploded when the death toll on the island was estimated at more than 3,000 and the federal response was found wanting. He quickly challenged the estimates and insisted some of the deaths were due to “old age” and others to “inept politicians,” local corruption, “a totally incompetent mayor,” the fact that Puerto Rico is an “inaccessible” island surrounded by water, and Democratic scheming “to make me look as bad as possible.” He called his response an “incredible unsung success.”

Setbacks in his dealings with North Korea:

When U.S. negotiations with North Korea didn’t seem to be living up to the rosy declarations he had made after his Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, the president in August blamed China, complaining that Beijing was putting “tremendous pressure” on Kim not to make concessions.

Failure to pass immigration reforms:

In Trump’s telling, the failure of the Republican Congress and Republican White House to get either an immigration bill or wall funding through is the fault of Democrats. “Every time you see a Caravan, or people illegally coming, or attempting to come, into our Country illegally, think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws,” he tweeted on Oct. 22. In another tweet, he wrote, “If the Democrats would stop being obstructionists and come together, we could write up and agree to new immigration laws in less than one hour.” In another, he wrote, “We can’t secure the Border because of the Democrats historic level of Obstruction.” Several other tweets began identically: “It is the Democrats fault....”

Failure to repeal Obamacare:

In March 2017, a Trump-backed bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act was withdrawn from the House when there were not enough votes to pass it. It failed in part because Trump made contradictory statements to members of the House and stumbled when trying to sell it both to Republicans and the public. As The New Republic stated, “He completely screwed up negotiations.” His response was to blame the minority party. “We had no Democrat support,” he said. “They weren’t going to give us a single vote so it’s a very difficult thing to do.” Neither in March nor after a later failure in July did Trump acknowledge that Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate and owned the failures.

Losses by candidates he supported:

Trump loves to boast of his successes in pulling Republicans over the finish line with well-timed tweets or strategic drop-ins before Election Day. Rarely, though, does he acknowledge the times his chosen candidate lost, and never does he accept any blame, even if the Democrat won by tying the losing Republican to Trump. When Ed Gillespie lost last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race despite nine Trump tweets backing him, the president tweeted, “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for.” When Luther Strange lost the Republican nomination for Senate in Alabama, the president blamed McConnell for pushing him into an endorsement. When Roy Moore lost the seat to a Democrat, Trump blamed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for vacating the seat and McConnell for trying to force Moore out of the race. He tweeted about other wins and added, “I said Roy M would lose in Alabama and supported Big Luther Strange – and Roy lost. Virginia candidate was not a ‘Trumper,’ and he lost. Good Republican candidates will win BIG!” When a Trump rally failed to rescue Rick Saccone in a Pennsylvania special House election, Trump privately disparaged the Republican as a lackluster candidate and insisted that Democrat Conor Lamb won only because he ran as “Oh, I’m like Trump” (a claim rebutted by fact checkers). When Foster Friess lost the Wyoming gubernatorial primary despite a Trump endorsement, the president blamed his son, Donald Jr., for forcing him to make a late endorsement.

The Mueller investigation:

At no point has the president conceded that anything his campaign did led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel investigating him. He has repeatedly blamed Sessions. And, last week, CNN reported that Trump used his last meeting with departing White House counsel Don McGahn to blame him for Mueller’s appointment.

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