On the 11th Sunday of his presidency, amid national approval polls as low as 35%, Donald Trump found himself on the back nine of his Virginia golf course, playing a foursome with his old rival Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. The group played to a tie, Paul would later report, but no one needed to be told the real score. Clearly the President was no longer winning.
A couple years back, Trump called Paul “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain.” He mocked the Senator’s golf game (“I easily beat him”) and dismissed his campaign as a “total mess” (“weak on the military, Israel, the Vets and many other issues”). He even joked about Paul’s looks. “And believe me there is plenty of subject matter right there,” Trump said, gesturing toward his opponent.
At the time, Trump was a statesman bulldozer, demolishing everyone in his path with insults and adjectives–“crooked,” “low energy,” “pathological” and “lyin’.” “My general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard,” Trump wrote in his best seller, The Art of the Deal. Confrontation was his method and message. In 2016, Americans voted for the alpha.
But nothing lasts forever. Now the President stayed silent as Rand rushed to the cameras after the game. “We had a great day with the President,” he crowed. “I continue to be very optimistic that we are getting closer and closer to an agreement on repealing Obamacare.”
Paul didn’t add “on my terms,” but the words hung in the air nonetheless. It was Paul, after all, who had helped lead the charge to kill Trump’s signature Obamacare replacement, even going so far as to hand out copies of The Art of the Deal to House conservatives. True to form, Trump and his advisers had tried to live up to Trump’s dominant reputation, with threats and tough talk. But nothing worked.
In one typical exchange, at a meeting with House Republicans, Trump told the moderate Pennsylvania Representative Charlie Dent that he was destroying the Republican Party by opposing the bill. “I’m going to blame you,” the President threatened. Dent remained a no. “I don’t take any of this personally,” Dent coolly explained to TIME. “I’d actually like to get the policy right.”
At another point, Trump sent an aide to look South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford in the eye and deliver a Mafia-style threat: “The President hopes you vote against the bill,” Sanford remembers being told, “so he can run a candidate against you in 2018.” Sanford divulged the private conversation to his local newspaper. He then quoted his state’s Republican creed, “I will never cower before any master, save my God.”
There is an old rule of stand-up comedy: punching up gets laughs. Punching down makes trouble. After a White House aide tweeted a call to “defeat” Representative Justin Amash in the 2018 primary, the Michigan Republican responded with “Bring it on,” and a link to his fundraising page. The antiestablishment vibe is very much alive in Trump’s Washington, except Trump is quickly becoming the Establishment. Almost all of the conservative holdouts in the House won their districts in 2016 by a greater margin than Trump.
And Congress is not the only place Trump’s rhetorical bullets have turned to blanks. The U.S. intelligence community, which Trump dismissed as politically motivated before taking office, has successfully leaked information to cost him a National Security Adviser and forced the partial recusal of his Attorney General. His taunting of the FBI on Twitter, with misleading accusations of wiretapping, was met by the public announcement by FBI Director James Comey of an investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian ties.
So Trump appears to be recalibrating, reversing himself with some regularity. After announcing he would move on from health care if conservatives did not cave, he has agreed to re-engage, sending his Vice President to offer further concessions to conservative lawmakers. “We all learned a lot,” Trump said after pulling his bill from the floor. The bravado is still there, as is the call to smash the system. But he knows there are limits, especially with his poll numbers so low. Governing, unlike campaigning, has always been more about making friends than calling out enemies.
–With reporting by SAM FRIZELL/WASHINGTON
This appears in the April 17, 2017 issue of TIME.
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