Washington Girds for Battle

An angry Trump strikes back after GOP’s Losses in 2018 US Midterm poll

By J Brooks Spector 8 November 2018

US President Donald J. Trump argues with CNN report Jim Acosta during a news conference in the East Room, at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, on 07 November 2018. Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate, but lost their majority in the House. EPA-EFE/Al Drago / POOL

Even before all the votes have been counted and all the winners declared, warfare is breaking out in Washington as Democrats move towards turning the House of Representatives’ mechanisms on the president, and Donald Trump threatens to retaliate with his own investigations, tackles the White House press corps, and fires his Attorney General. Those dogs of war are already on the hunt.

Following this American politics thing is beginning to feel like the morning after the night before. We simply must learn not to drink wine, beer, Cointreau, brandy, and Amarula in one sitting, amplified by shots of gin, vodka and Absinthe. Two days after the actual voting, this is about how it feels. Way too many messages.

So many different, contradictory messages, in fact, have coalesced together with a vintage Trumpian performance, post-election, that they have already made his inflammatory, hyperbolic, delusional (okay, lying, prevaricating, race-baiting, dog whistling, red meat-tossed) performances before howling mobs of core supporters in the final days of the campaign seem like a baroque, architecturally challenged appetizer, served up before the main course.

But this was also a main course laden with so many conflicting ingredients, and served at an overpriced, gold lamé-decorated pretentious dining spot, that it has become well-nigh indigestible. In short, it has all been vintage Trump – part high-wire act entertainment, part bear baiting, and part faux-gladiatorial contest, all with hizzoner as the star, ringmaster, puppeteer, and lachrymose, put-upon victim.

Let’s start with the results of the election itself. While the final answers in several congressional districts for the House of Representatives remain incomplete or in dispute, it is virtually certain the Democrats have gained at least a 33 or 34 seat cushion over the Republicans, out of the 435-seat total.

The Republicans had previously held a majority in both this house as well as in the Senate. The Democrats did their work in large part by capturing middle class, well educated, increasingly appalled white women voters in suburban districts around the country’s big and medium sized cities all across the country – and not just in the more obvious Northeast states and the Pacific Coast corridor.

The Republicans did manage to increase their majority in the Senate by three, maybe four members (with the final outcome still in doubt, with the lingering possibility of a recount or two, or perhaps even court challenges over deliberate voter suppression efforts in one or two states).

And among the 36 governorships up for grabs, Democrats significantly bettered their national share, along with an improved tally of hundreds of state legislators and other state and local offices. (These shifts will be crucial in the process of redistricting congressional seats in 2020, and partisan influences can be very important. The state governments draw up their congressional districts on the basis of the national census every 10 years.)

At least one hard-fought governor’s race – in the southern state of Georgia – remains unsettled. Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams has refused to concede to Brian Kemp on grounds that voter suppression efforts via broken voting machines, unavailable ballots and other problems demonstrated a deliberate bias against black voters, thereby thwarting Abrams’ drive to be the nation’s first black, female governor.

Notably, the Democratic Party’s membership in Congress is now significantly more racially and ethnically diverse than even previously (now with several Muslim-American and Native American women numbered among the group), and with many more women, overall, among the contingent. Notably, a significant number of these newly elected female members are also military veterans who had actual combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The obvious differences between the two parties’ congressional delegations probably means the Democratic Party picture is almost certain to go viral and become an iconic image – even before a single legislative act is carried out by them. Maybe they will even sell authorised copies as a fundraising mechanism for the 2020 election campaign.

Many of these women, in fact, as could be seen in recent interviews on news channels or in stories broadcast about them, have explained they were political neophytes who became motivated to put themselves into the elective political fray, following their growing revulsion over the mysogynist language and acts carried out by the president, as well as from the broader effects and influences of the #MeToo movement. Others were brought into elective politics by veteran activist politicians, eager to tap into the youth and enthusiasm of individuals who were already engaged in social activism beyond straightforward elective politics. Yet others have said they were motivated to step forward as a continuation, either of the ideals of their national service in the military, or from personal commitments to preserve the healthcare gains that came from the passage of the Affordable Care Act against Republican efforts to roll the ACA back.

While it would be a mistake to say the new Democratic caucus is a uniformly far-left gaggle of radical socialists, it is also true the ideological centre of the party’s delegation has moved leftward and towards activism and impatience with the old legislative verities. In contrast, the Republican Party’s delegation, by virtue of the defeat of so many relatively more moderate Republican congressmen from big city suburban districts by those energised Democrats, means the remaining Republicans now are increasingly hard right, social conservatives or Trumpian political disrupters of the political universe.

If the House were evenly split, this would be a perfect way of defining Washington political gridlock. However, the Democrats now totally control the House. As a result, they will chair all of the (portfolio) committees and control the management and forward movement of all bills to be brought for consideration. Most important, they will have the authority to initiate hearings and investigations and the associated issuance of summonses and subpoenas for documents and testimony in pursuit of the kind of congressional oversight originally envisioned in the constitution but largely ignored during the Trump years.

For some in the caucus, this means launching right into the fire. They are eager to use the powerful Ways and Means Committee to seek release of Trump tax returns – all of them – in order to determine if he has used his position to unfairly benefit from eager foreign visitors staying in a luxury Trump-owned hotel near the White House; or if he, his attorneys, and his accountants have made use of questionable or illegal mechanisms to reduce his tax obligations – but who then covered their tracks.

Others are already urging the incoming chairs of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to reconvene the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election that had been so poorly and injudiciously carried out under Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, earlier in 2017-18. And there are already stirrings of a preliminary consideration by the Judiciary Committee of an inquiry of the impeachment of the president.

Beyond these potential high-profile, guaranteed to make giant waves and tsunamis investigations, the Trump administration must already be bracing itself for what will be an unremitting series of investigations into a long list of scandals, potential scandals, or proto-scandals that could easily congeal an administration’s efforts. And none of this even includes the way the incoming House of Representatives and the Trump administration must interact over the normal course of government such as consideration of government budgets, tax law changes, and every other piece of legislative business.

If the overall results of the midterm election largely followed predictions, what came soon afterwards boggled the imagination. The president gave a 90-minute post-election news conference. Things started out as a fairly normal news conference (if anything associated with this president can be called normal), but it soon spiralled out of control. Totally. Completely.

President Trump first read off a prepared, panglossian summary of why the Republicans were the real winners in the midterm election. So far so good. Like all officials confronted by a major disaster, he found sugarcoated ways to paint it as a very modest setback, and actually even a kind of victory for the forces of light against those terrible armies of darkness. But as soon as the journalists’ questioning started, it was off to the races, with a generous soupçon of epistomological “truth or dare” ladled into the mix.

He hit out – even gloated at her loss – at Republicans such as Congresswoman Mia Love of Utah who had backed away from a Trumpian embrace, but who were still defeated by Democrats. He threatened that if a Democratic House engaged in investigations of HIM and HIS administration, why he would gird up the loins of GOP senators and send them off to investigate the House. Shades of that famous monologue by Sean Connery in the film The Untouchables, the one about bringing the right kind of weaponry to a street fight. And it went on and on in this ugly vein, getting worse with each interrogative by foreign and domestic journalists alike.

By the time CNN’s Jim Acosta tried to ask a follow-up question, the president told him to shut up and hand over the microphone. A junior staffer moved to receive it; Acosta held it back until finally surrendering to another reporter. With that, the White House went into imperial high dudgeon mode, pulling Acosta’s White House press entry card and launching an offensive insisting Acosta had put his hands on the dutiful intern, despite eyewitness testimony from other reporters and even the videotape if the event. I believe the precise name of this psychological condition would be transference, or perhaps projection, given the president’s own track record of the laying on of (his) hands. If the war between the press and president was not nasty enough already, this is going to make it that much nastier.

But the most amazing moment came just after the press conference when it was announced that Donald Trump had just fired his increasingly maligned attorney general. (Okay, figleaf alert: the president requested Jeff Sessions’ resignation.) The president has been furious ever since Sessions had recused himself from the supervision of Russian electoral interference special prosecutor Robert Mueller, right from the very beginning of the Trump era.

Now that the elections were done with, now was the time, apparently, to get rid of the thorn in his side. But instead of having the deputy attorney general, Rob Rosenstein, take over the reins temporarily, as would be the norm, Trump went out and asked Sessions’ chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, to take charge instead. Given that Rosenstein has publicly said the probe and Mueller have done everything by the book, while Whitaker has been Trump’s attack dog on it, depredating it on television, the alarms are already going off – signalling fears that Whitaker will move to shut down the investigation, to wind it up, or to dial it way, way back.

Politico was already commenting:

… The president has served up to Democrats their first investigation on a silver platter. The dismissal of Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has sparked a fury of behind-the-scenes activity, as Democrats look to understand what the Trump administration was thinking by booting the nation’s top law enforcement officer. This is literally perfect investigative fodder for Hill Democrats. Republicans can’t really say this is overreach. It would seem, if Democrats could handpick an investigation to kick off next Congress, this would be it.”

Incoming House committee chairs have already “sent a raft of letters to the administration, asking for them to preserve all materials ‘relevant to the work of the Office of the Special Counsel or the departure of the Attorney General’… Remember: Investigations do not begin with subpoenas. Investigations begin with letters, and requests for information. When those go unanswered, then the threats begin. And then, the last resort is subpoenas. These investigations tend to drag on for a bit.”

In other words, prepare for a long, sustained, very public struggle, what with a constant drip, drip, drip of bad news for the president; and then his retaliatory tirades, threats, curses, imprecations, and still worse from the president and his minions. Things are just getting started. DM


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