President Donald Trump has unleashed a barrage of tweets that were somewhat cryptic in their specifics - he suggested GOP leaders could have easily hiked the debt ceiling by attaching it to another unrelated bill, which is fanciful - but the overall upshot was clear: Trump was clearly telegraphing his intention to dump all of the blame for the expected governing chaos this fall on his fellow Republicans.
Taken in isolation, these tweets would mean little. But they need to be viewed in the context of another Trump threat that today is being widely taken very seriously by Republicans and news organizations alike: His threat to force a government shutdown to gain funding for his cherished wall on the Mexican border.
All in all, what Trump is really threatening is to inflict a massive political nightmare on the congressional leaders of his own party. This political nightmare actually has multiple dimensions, which becomes apparent when you step back and recap all the things that are up in the air right now:
The debt ceiling must be raised by some time in October, or we'll be at risk of default and economic calamity.
The government must be funded by October (or a continuing resolution must be passed), or it will shut down, and Trump is insisting that he is prepared to let that happen if Congress does not fund his wall.
Trump must decide by some time in September whether to continue supporting the Obama-era executive action that grants work permits and protection from deportation to some 800,000 people brought here illegally as children, a.k.a the "dreamers."
Trump must decide whether to keep funding the "cost-sharing reductions," or CSRs, that subsidize coverage for lower income people, or Republicans must decide whether to appropriate that money. If they are stopped, insurers could exit the individual markets, meaning they could melt down and leave millions without coverage options.
Trump must decide whether to go through with his pardon of Joe Arpaio.
It's hard to say how these things will overlap with one another in this fall's negotiations. But here's what we know so far. The administration wants a debt ceiling hike, but, with some congressional conservatives sure to demand spending cuts in exchange for going along with it, the talks over the debt limit will get tangled up with the talks over funding the government. Trump is demanding border wall funding or he won't sign a bill keeping the government in business, but Democrats have drawn a hard line against that.
At the same time, the White House may use the fate of the dreamers as a "bargaining chip" to try to compel Congress to fund the wall (and make other concessions as well), which is also unlikely to sway Democrats. Meanwhile, Democrats may demand that Republicans agree to fund the CSRs as a condition for their support for a budget, which GOP leaders are likely to need, since they'll lose some conservatives.
It is easy to see Trump caving on all these fronts. He has already threatened in the past to hold up government funding over the wall and not to fund the CSRs - and he has backed down on those fronts. He campaigned on a vow to scrap all of President Barack Obama's executive actions immediately - including the one protecting dreamers - but balked once in office, in part, at least, because the political fallout would have been crushing.
But here's the problem: Trump has boxed himself in, perhaps to a far greater degree than a few months ago. At his Arizona rally, Trump bashed Congress for failing to help him build the wall, which unleashed a great roar from the crowd: "Build that wall! Build that wall!" The New York Times reports that former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon privately told Trump that getting the wall funding is an absolute must, because Trump's base will not tolerate another loss after the failure to repeal Obamacare. Never mind that repeal would have hit Trump voters particularly hard; Bannon believes Trump must have a "win" - if it isn't the sight of Trump stomping all over something with Obama's name on it, the wall will have to do - or the base will be crushed with shame and disappointment over their loser president.
Add to this the fact that Trump also broadly hinted a pardon of Arpaio is coming, which also elicited a tremendous roar of approval from the Arizona crowd, strongly suggesting that they expect Trump to deliver here, too. After all, pardoning Arpaio is making the right people (the elites) angry, and Trump won't surrender to elites lecturing him about the limits on his power, right?
We also know that, with the Russia probes closing in, Trump views keeping the base strongly in his corner as crucial. The upshot: Trump may feel more pressure to deliver for them. Indeed, as Brian Beutler argues, multiple conditions are now in place for Trump to break free of the self-preservative constraints that limited him before, and go through with some of these vows once and for all.
But the political threats here have to spook Republicans the most. The bulk of the blame for a government shutdown - or, perish the thought, default - would likely fall most heavily on Republicans. Same goes for the fallout from 800,000 dreamers losing work permits or from the insurance markets melting down.
A pardon of Arpaio, an authoritarian racist with a history of abusive treatment of Latinos, will lead to a major escalation in discussion of Trump's lawlessness and force Republicans to take a position on it. In these scenarios, Trump is leaving his fellow Republicans with options that range from terrible to horrible. And it's unclear whether Trump understands this - or cares about it if he does.