Fol­low­ing the midterm elec­tions, Wash­ing­ton’s bal­ance of power is chang­ing, and nei­ther party can rest on its lau­rels as the Pres­i­den­tial cam­paig­ing be­gins

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Suzanne Lynch Wash­ing­ton Cor­re­spon­dent

They were billed as the most im­por­tant midterm elec­tions in decades, as Amer­i­cans went to the polls on Tues­day to de­liver their first po­lit­i­cal ver­dict on Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency. But 24 hours l ater they seemed a dis­tant mem­ory, as Wash­ing­ton was plunged back into the po­lit­i­cal drama that has been the hall­mark of the Trump era.

On Wed­nes­day morn­ing, as Amer­i­cans were di­gest­ing the re­sults of the United States’ con­gres­sional and gu­ber­na­to­rial races, the White House sum­moned re­porters for a press con­fer­ence. I was among the dozens of jour­nal­ists who went along for what we ex­pected to be a reg­u­lar briefing.

Pres­i­dents typ­i­cally talk to the me­dia af­ter elec­tion day. Most ex­press con­tri­tion for their side’s losses – midterms of­ten go against the party that holds the White House – and prom­ise to work in a new spirit of bi­par­ti­san­ship. Ge­orge W Bush ad­mit­ted in 2006 that vot­ers had given him a thump­ing, and in 2010 Barack Obama apol­o­gised for his party’s “shel­lack­ing”. Not Don­ald Trump.

Wed­nes­day’s 90- minute press con­fer­ence func­tioned as an ex­tended vic­tory lap for the mer­cu­rial pres­i­dent. Tues­day had been a “big, big day, an in­cred­i­ble day”, for Repub­li­cans, he said, brush­ing aside the Demo­cratic Party’s vic­tory in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. He sug­gested that Repub­li­can politi­cians who lost their seats had suf­fered be­cause they hadn’t en­dorsed him. He read out their names one by one. “Too bad, Mike,” he said of Mike Coff­man, who lost his seat in a part of Colorado where Trump is un­pop­u­lar. “Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia,” he said of the Utah Repub­li­can.

At least one party col­league took um­brage as he watched the press con­fer­ence. Ryan Costello, a re­tir­ing Penn­syl­va­nia con­gress­man, tweeted his dis­gust at the pres­i­dent of the United States, or Potus. “To deal w ha­rass­ment & filth spewed at GOP MOC’s” – Grand Old Party, or Repub­li­can, mem­bers of Con­gress – “in tough seats ev­ery day for 2 yrs, bc of POTUS; to bite ur lip more times you’d care to; to dis­agree & sep­a­rate from POTUS on prin­ci­ple & ci­vil­ity in ur cam­paign; to lose bc of POTUS & have him piss on u. Angers me to my core.”

But Trump’s al­ter­ca­tion with CNN’s chief White House cor­re­spon­dent, Jim Acosta, took the pres­i­dent’s ag­gres­sion to a new level. As he shouted at Acosta to sit down, af­ter the jour­nal­ist re­peat­edly tried to chal­lenge Trump’s scare­mon­ger­ing about the car­a­van of mi­grants walk­ing through Mex­ico to­wards the US bor­der, the air bris­tled. A phys­i­cal con­fronta­tion was averted, but only just.

Mirac­u­lously, Trump calmed down – be­fore mov­ing to his next tar­gets, sub­ject­ing two African- Amer­i­can women to his scorn. He re­peat­edly told April Ryan, a ra­dio cor­re­spon­dent who also con­trib­utes to CNN, to sit down and ac­cused Yamiche Al­cin­dor of PBS New­sHour of ask­ing a racist ques­tion.

The me­an­der­ing press con­fer­ence con­tin­ued, and Trump’s mood swung from an­gry de­ri­sion to strange hu­mil­ity as he played the role of mis­un­der­stood vic­tim. At times he seemed more au­to­crat than US pres­i­dent, pick­ing and choos­ing which jour­nal­ists to talk to and which ques­tions to an­swer.

The alarm­ing con­trast with other press con­fer­ences I have at­tended, whether with taoisigh or the likes of the for­mer British prime min­is­ter David Cameron or the Ger­man chan­cel­lor, An­gela Merkel, was a mea­sure of how far US pres­i­den­tial be­hav­iour has fallen since Trump’s elec­tion.

But if Wed­nes­day’s press con­fer­ence was yet an­other low, it also showed that the for­mer re­al­ity-tele­vi­sion star re­mains a mas­ter me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tor, shap­ing the nar­ra­tive of his pres­i­dency. Trump ex­pertly re­fo­cused cov­er­age away from his party’s poor per­for­mance in the house and to­wards him­self.

Acosta tus­sle

His tus­sle with Acosta was likely pre­med­i­tated. Trump, af­ter all, de­cided to take a ques­tion from a re­porter with whom he has fre­quently clashed. Many be­lieve he wanted con­fronta­tion. Clearly en­joy­ing him­self, he at one stage asked, rhetor­i­cally, “Should we keep this go­ing for a lit­tle while?”

That Wed­nes­day’s spec­ta­cle was less a press con­fer­ence and more an op­por­tu­nity for Trump to play the bully boy was un­der­lined by the fact that, hav­ing been specif­i­cally asked about his at­tor­ney gen­eral’s fu­ture, he chose in­stead to wait an hour and then an­nounce on Twit­ter that he had ef­fec­tively fired Jeff Ses­sions. That the me­dia briefing had been Trump’s op­por­tu­nity to brief the me­dia seemed to have been lost on the pres­i­dent.

De­spite his chang­ing of the nar­ra­tive, this week’s elec­tions will sig­nif­i­cantly al­ter pol­i­tics in Wash­ing­ton for the sec­ond half of Trump’s term. The midterms have ush­ered in a new po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity: his White House is faced with a di­vided gov­ern­ment for the first time. Their new con­gres­sional power will al­low Democrats to frus­trate the pres­i­dent’s agenda. From the pro­posed bor­der wall to mil­i­tary fund­ing to health­care, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will find it ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult to push its pro­pos­als through Con­gress.

More con­cern­ing for the pres­i­dent is his op­po­nents’ new pow­ers of sub­poena. Richard Neal, the Mas­sachusetts con­gress­man who is ex­pected to be­come the next chair­man of the ways- and- means com­mit­tee, the house’s chief tax-writ­ing body, has al­ready said he in­tends to seek Trump’s tax re­turns un­der a 1924 law that lets cer­tain leg­is­la­tors de­mand the re­lease of any Amer­i­can’s tax de­tails, although he an­tic­i­pates a le­gal bat­tle with the White House.

The ex­pected in­com­ing chair­man of the ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee, the staunch Trump critic Jerry Nadler, has pledged to pre­serve the in­tegrity of Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, amid sug­ges­tions that the White House may seek to keep pri­vate most of the in­for­ma­tion in the spe­cial coun­sel’s re­port.

De­spite Trump’s early talk of a “beau­ti­ful bi­par­ti­san” fu­ture with Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, who will soon move from mi­nor­ity to ma­jor­ity leader in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, re­plac­ing the re­tir­ing Repub­li­can Paul Ryan, was quick to warn that Trump’s fir­ing of Ses­sions was unac­cept­able and a bla­tant at­tempt to un­der­mine the Mueller in­quiry, which could sub­mit its re­port at any time.

Much fo­cus in the com­ing weeks will be on how far the pres­i­dent tries to con­strain its in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ work via his new act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral, Matthew Whi­taker, be­fore the new Con­gress is sworn in, in early Jan­uary, and Democrats as­sume the ma­jor­ity.

Whi­taker, a Trump loy­al­ist who has pub­licly crit­i­cised the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion, has in­di­cated that he has no in­ten­tion of fol­low­ing Ses­sions, whose chief of staff he was un­til Wed­nes­day, in re­cus­ing him­self from over­see­ing the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. ( Although any ac­tion Whi­taker takes, on that or any other is­sue, will be il­le­gal, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral prom­i­nent le­gal schol­ars, in­clud­ing the Har­vard pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional law Lau­rence Tribe, as the United States Se­nate has not con­firmed his ap­point­ment.)

The clashes that will flow from the re­align­ment of power in Wash­ing­ton re­flect the pic­ture of an even more po­lit­i­cally di­vided United States drawn by the midterms. Both par­ties can claim vic­tory from Tues­day’s re­sults, Democrats for seiz­ing con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives af­ter win­ning the all- im­por­tant sub­ur­ban and women’s vote, Repub­li­cans for ex­pand­ing their ma­jor­ity in the se­nate – largely on the ba­sis of sup­port from ru­ral vot­ers – which will al­low the GOP to con­tinue to pack fed­eral courts with con­ser­va­tive judges.

This week has les­sons for both par­ties as the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion looms. Repub­li­cans boasted that they won the key races for gover­nor in Ohio and Florida, two bat­tle­ground states that will again play an out­sized role in 2020. But Democrats out­per­formed in Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin, whose nar­row ma­jori­ties for Trump in 2016 en­sured his vic­tory.

The midterms might also show the lim­its of cam­paign spend­ing. Th­ese elec­tions were the most ex­pen­sive in his­tory – an es­ti­mated $4.7 bil­lion was spent, with Demo­cratic fundrais­ing far out­strip­ping Repub­li­can – but this did not al­ways trans­late into votes, as shown by Beto O’Rourke’s in­abil­ity to flip Ted Cruz’s se­nate seat in Texas, de­spite the huge fundrais­ing ma­chine be­hind him.

Per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, the midterm elec­tions did not pro­duce a de­ci­sive an­swer to a ques­tion that will shape the out­come of the next elec­tion: what kind of can­di­date does the Demo­cratic Party want as it tries to dis­lodge Trump in 2020?

It has still not fully re­solved the in­ter­nal di­vi­sions left by the bat­tle be­tween Bernie Sanders and Hil­lary Clin­ton for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion in 2016, and the midterms like­wise yielded no clear sense of how the party hopes to de­fine it­self. O’Rourke’s fel­low gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date An­drew Gil­lum, in Florida, was one of a num­ber of other pro­gres­sives who also failed to win their races, and none of this week’s elec­tions pro­duced a stand­out can­di­date.

The midterm elec­tions tra­di­tion­ally mark the un­of­fi­cial start of the next pres­i­den­tial race. Bet­ter-known po­ten­tial Demo­cratic can­di­dates, such as Joe Biden or even Sanders, can per­haps af­ford to wait a lit­tle longer, but other con­tenders for 2020 will need to de­clare their in­ten­tions as early as Jan­uary.

Trump has al­ready cre­ated a for­mi­da­ble re- elec­tion cam­paign – Trump 2020 base­ball hats are a fre­quent sight at cam­paign ral­lies. As the United States turns its eyes to that big elec­tion bat­tle, the next two years of his ad­min­is­tra­tion prom­ise to be as event­ful as the first, as the po­lar­is­ing pres­i­dent pre­pares to fight for a sec­ond term in the White House.

Trump ex­pertly re­fo­cused cov­er­age away from his party’s poor per­for­mance in the house and to­wards him­self. His tus­sle with Acosta was likely pre­med­i­tated

Don­ald Trump has al­ready cre­ated a for­mi­da­ble re-elec­tion cam­paign – Trump 2020 base­ball hats are a fre­quent sight at cam­paign ral­lies. Be­low, an in­tern tries to take the mi­cro­phone from CNN cor­re­spon­dent Jim Acosta dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s con­fronta­tional White House press con­fer­ence PHO­TO­GRAPH: VIC­TOR J BLUE/ BLOOMBERG

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