WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump was defiant and declarative, with all the hammer-on-anvil subtlety that has charted a now-familiar pattern of his presidency: create a crisis, retreat, declare victory, move on.
“Not only didn’t I back down, I backed up,” Trump insisted Friday. However he may phrase it, though, Trump walked away from his earlier vow to include a contentious question about citizenship on the 2020 census.
The president shifted his bulldozer of an administration into reverse, announcing that he would drop his push to seek the citizenship status of all American residents on the census, instead ordering other agencies to share data with the Department of Commerce, which oversees the decennial survey.
The face-saving measure, announced to fanfare in the Rose Garden on Thursday, underscored the president’s obsession with projecting a “win” even in the face of defeat. He’s demonstrated a reluctance to acknowledge even the minor missteps that have plagued his administration from its start.
After fighting in court and in the press for nearly two years to include the citizenship question, Trump this week insisted it was unnecessary because federal data-sharing would lead to more accurate results.
“We’re already finding out who the citizens are and who they’re not,” Trump said without evidence, barely 12 hours after signing the executive order. “And I think more accurately.”
Critics, including the ACLU, which successfully sued the administration to block the citizenship question, disagreed.
“Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration,” said Dale Ho, director of the organization’s Voting Rights Project.
And there were indications that Trump supporters, who were clamoring for the president to keep up the fight, also were unsatisfied with the outcome.
Trump’s announcement was met with silence from most of his allies, rather than the usual cacophony of supportive statements for presidential actions.
The scene was reminiscent of one six months earlier in the same spot. In that case, Trump declared he was “very proud” to announce an agreement to end a debilitating government shutdown that had been sparked by his own insistence that Congress fund his long-sought border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Despite Trump’s bravado, no such funding materialized from lawmakers, as the president backed down in the face of mounting criticism and claimed victory anyway.
Weeks later, after lawmakers again rebuffed Trump’s request for wall funding, he boasted that a wall “is being built as we speak.”
“You are going to have to be in extremely good shape to get over this one,” he added. “They would be able to climb Mount Everest a lot easier, I think.”
In fact, Trump has added strikingly little length to barriers along the Mexico border despite his pre-eminent 2016 campaign promise to get a wall done.
Trump followed a similar pattern the day after his party lost the House in the midterm elections, bringing about divided government and a flood of Democratic oversight investigations. The president was unbowed, telling reporters, “I thought it was a very close to complete victory.”
It’s no surprise that Trump has difficulty conceding defeat, even when it’s plain as day.
He rose to celebrity, and then the White House, with relentless self-promotion and touting the “Art of the Deal.” In Trump’s view, admitting defeat would pose an existential political risk to the candidate who famously rallied his supporters with promises that “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.”
Overseas, too, Trump rushes to claim victory when the facts paint a very different picture.
After his inaugural meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump flatly declared on Twitter that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” — despite no change to its established stockpile. And last month, he embraced Kim at the demilitarized zone and insisted their second summit in Vietnam earlier this year had been a success, despite his own highly publicized walkout.
Trump also postponed steep tariffs he had announced on Mexico last month in an effort to push that country to curtail a surge in illegal border crossings. Even as he backed off, though, the president found reason to declare a win on a central campaign promise that has been largely unfulfilled as he prepared to formally launch his 2020 campaign.
After Trump claimed the deal would “greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States,” he drew mockery from Democrats, including Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who sarcastically declared in response that it was “an historic night!”