Battle lines drawn as Trump threatens Democrats
Combative news conference sets scene after elections result in split Congress
Washington has plunged into political war following split decision by US voters in the Midterm elections, with President Donald Trump yesterday ousting his Attorney General and threatening to retaliate against Democrats if they launch investigations into his personal conduct and possible corruption in the Administration.
The rapid shift to battle stations signalled the start of what is likely to be two years of unremitting political combat as Trump positions himself for re-election. For the first time, Trump will be forced to navigate divided government as Democrats, who on Wednesday won the House of Representatives, pledge to be a check on his power and face pressure from their liberal base to block him at every turn.
The acrimony was punctuated by Trump’s bombast as he refused to show contrition or take responsibility for his party’s washout in many suburban areas where voters who previously backed Republicans rejected the President’s hardline politics.
Democrat House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to lead the new Democratic majority as speaker, said her caucus would use its subpoena authority to pursue sweeping oversight of the Trump Administration.
“We will have a responsibility to honour our oversight responsibilities, and that’s the path that we will go down,” she told reporters. But, she added, Democrats would do so in the interest of “trying to unify our country”.
Democrat Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, whose party lost seats in the upper chamber, nonetheless cheered the House triumph and said, “There’s now a check on Donald Trump, and that is great news for America.”
Following Wednesday’s Midterms, some allies said, Trump was both emboldened — because he believed he had helped expand the Republican majority in the Senate — and apprehensive, because he would no longer be able to bend all of Congress to his will. But unlike his predecessors who acknowledged a “shellacking” (Barack Obama in 2010) or a “thumping” (George W. Bush in 2006) after Midterm losses, Trump spun his own reality by claiming “very close to complete victory”.
Trump said in a wide-ranging and often sharp-tongued news conference that any hope for bipartisan deals would evaporate if House Democrats use their new power to investigate him or his Administration. Such efforts, he said, would precipitate “a warlike posture”.
House Democrats have said they plan to begin a series of investigations of the President, including issuing a subpoena for his tax returns, which he has for years refused to release. Trump said he would respond by using the Republican-controlled Senate as a cudgel, instructing his allies there to investigate alleged misconduct by Democrats.
“They can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate,” Trump said. “They can look at us, then we can look at them and it’ll go back and forth. And it’ll probably be very good for me politically . . . because I think I’m better at that game than they are, actually.”
Trump has told advisers that he intends to exploit divisions among House Democrats, according to a senior White House official. He believes he can pit Pelosi and others who are interested in making deals with him on policies like infrastructure spending against those who rose to office intent on blocking his agenda and, perhaps, beginning impeachment proceedings.
The President’s allies argued that Democrats were overestimating their mandate from Wednesday’s elections and would emerge as a useful political foil for Trump as he seeks re-election.
During his remarkably combative news conference in the East Room of the White House yesterday, Trump repeatedly lost his cool as he answered questions from journalists for 86 minutes. He called CNN’s Jim Acosta “a rude, terrible person”, snapped at Peter Alexander of NBC News and directed April Ryan of American Urban Radio to “sit down”. And when Yamiche Alcindor of
asked the President whether by identifying as a “nationalist” he also was embracing the label “white nationalist”, he told her repeatedly, “That’s such a racist question”. “To say what you just said is so insulting to me,” Trump responded to Alcindor, who is black.
After demonising Democrats in apocalyptic terms and attacking Pelosi on the campaign trail, Trump said yesterday, “The election’s over. Now everybody is in love.”
But he drowned out his own call for unity within hours by announcing via Twitter the sudden ouster of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said in his resignation letter that the President had directed him to resign.
The two parties plunged into a fierce disagreement over whether the President was obstructing justice by
replacing Sessions with acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker, who immediately assumed control over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The inquiry had previously been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Democrats indicated that the firing of Sessions would be one of their top investigation targets — and warned of a constitutional crisis.
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who is set to take over as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the Mueller probe was in “new and immediate peril”. “Interference with the special counsel’s investigation would cause a constitutional crisis and undermine the rule of law,” Schiff said. “If the President seeks to interfere in the impartial administration of justice, the Congress must stop him. No one is above the law.”