Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1428, (31 January - 6 February 2019)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1428, (31 January - 6 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Trump caves in

US President Donald Trump has agreed to end the longest-ever US government shutdown in history without receiving funding for his wall along the border with Mexico, reports Khaled Dawoud

Pelosi signs a deal to reopen the government on Capitol Hill in Washington (photo: AP)
Pelosi signs a deal to reopen the government on Capitol Hill in Washington (photo: AP)

US President Donald Trump’s West Wing may have sensed the urgent need for a show of force on Monday, as Washington digested the aftermath of the longest-ever US federal government shutdown, lasting for 35 days, which ended with the president as far away as ever from getting funding for his wall along the border with Mexico.

There were also signs that Trump’s rivals were preparing for a tough fight in the upcoming 2020 presidential elections. The expected difficult bargaining in Congress over the proposed wall suggests that Trump is beginning to look like prey for opponents ready to pounce on his less than 40 per cent approval ratings, according to the latest CNN polls.

When paired with statements by acting US Attorney-General Matt Whitaker that the Russia collusion investigation by special counsel Robert Muller is coming to a close and the indictment of Roger Stone, one of Trump’s close political aides during his 2016 election campaign, these are factors deepening the impression of a White House under siege.

It was not supposed to be this way for Trump, not this Tuesday anyway, when he should have appeared on the national stage for his State of the Union address, a president’s best chance each year to use the pageantry of his position and a huge TV audience to make his case.

But Trump was told during the shutdown last week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to show up for the speech in a blatant demonstration of Washington’s new power dynamics. He will get to give his speech next week, but Trump’s caving in on the shutdown on Friday means he will not be quite so feared when he finally steps up for his speech in the House of Representatives.

From the start of his presidential campaign Trump was a front-runner, forcing his rivals to react to his antics and unpredictable shifts that tore up the rulebook of conventional US politics. Even as his presidency has lurched from crisis to crisis and he has failed to command majority support in the country, Trump has always dictated events with unexpected moves such as his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un or tweets that put the nation and the world on edge.

But in the aftermath of the shutdown and a midterm election rout, Trupm is under scrutiny to see if he can stage the kind of political comeback that is crucial to every successful president. While it is too early to write off Trump’s political acumen, he clearly has a lot of work to do.

He risked his standing with his conservative base by ending the shutdown without forcing Pelosi to fund the border wall, and he cemented the Democrats behind their leader after handing Pelosi a major victory.

That left him needing to wrest back control of the political agenda from rivals who are becoming increasingly successful at pegging him back. It will be a test of political skill on which his presidency may depend.

Pelosi waited just long enough to reissue her invitation to Trump to deliver the State of the Union address to stress her institutional power over the president, with the speech now being set for next Tuesday.

All of this is a sign that Trump may need to go back to where he performs best – the campaign trail – where he can sharpen his counterattacks and try to lure his rivals into bottom-of-the-barrel fights in which he has no political equal.

But the president may soon have more to worry about than the forthcoming elections. Whitaker on Monday revived anticipation over the outcome of the Mueller probe, saying that he thinks it is “close to being completed.” He added that he was “fully briefed” on the investigation. “I look forward to Mueller delivering the final report,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker’s announcement follows new bipartisan legislation filed on Monday that would require Mueller to summarise his findings in a report to Congress and the public.

The Russia investigation, which began when Mueller was appointed in May 2017, had earlier showed signs of nearing its end. Some of the investigation’s prosecutors moved to different jobs outside of Mueller’s office, and he also moved some of its targets, like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, towards sentencing.

The arrest on Friday of former Trump adviser Stone, one of the last key campaign associates in the president’s orbit, was also a long anticipated move from Mueller. The investigation held by the FBI director has consistently returned results, and the grand jury has indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, their Russian business associate Konstantin Kilimnik, 12 Russian military intelligence officers, and 13 Russians and three companies that allegedly manipulated social media to sway US voters.

Manafort and Gates have since pleaded guilty to reduced sets of charges, with Mueller alleging in December that Manafort had lied on five major counts since agreeing to cooperate with the special counsel’s office as part of his plea agreement.

Flynn, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos have also pleaded guilty to charges from the special counsel’s office.

And Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen on Monday agreed to testify in private to the House Intelligence Committee next week. His testimony in public before another House committee, from which he backed away last week fearing for the security of his family, might also be back on, according to his new lawyer Michael Monico.

New revelations about Trump’s business and personal relationships before he became president would be almost certain to set the political vultures flying around the White House once again.  

With speculation growing that Mueller’s final report could be devastating for Trump, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders last week sought to stamp out any sense that Trump’s presidency is facing an existential threat. “Not at all. In fact, I think nothing could be further from the truth,” Sanders told CNN’s Jim Acosta in her first briefing in 41 days.

Meanwhile, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale has reportedly been pushing him to hold firm in his ongoing battle with the Democrats over funding for a border wall with Mexico. Parscale is making his pitch as Trump continues to negotiate with the Democrats over the border wall funding with the possibility of another government shutdown looming in less than three weeks.

Parscale is presenting the president with internal data that shows that voters in key swing areas believe a border wall or fence is needed. After the shutdown ended, Parscale commissioned a firm to test the president’s job performance and his border policies in 10 swing House districts where Democrats won in November.

The chosen districts allow Parscale to show how staying the course could put pressure on House Democrats and speaker Nancy Pelosi to break their steadfast opposition to funding a border wall.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill entered the next chapter in the fight over the border wall sceptical that a broad immigration deal could be reached.  

“I am not ruling anything out at this point. It’s just an effort to pass a [department of homeland security] appropriations bill and put an end to recurring presidential threats of a shutdown,” said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber.

“I go into this to solve the problem as best I can, but I don’t go in with any high expectations when it comes to the immigration side... I don’t go in with any high hopes that will be successful on immigration issues and I am not walking in there with an immigration agenda.”

After the longest US government shutdown in history, lawmakers returned on Monday to Washington sober to the realities that the next three weeks will entail gruelling negotiations between two sides that have spent the last month engaged in raw, partisan posturing. If an immigration deal has eluded Congress for decades, members are keen to the fact that the environment over the next three weeks is also not likely to produce one.

“That would be really challenging,” Senator John Thune of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, told reporters on Monday night. “I think this is going to be all about the number. But who knows? That would be great. The president put some stuff in play. If the Democrats are willing to make a broader deal, I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.”

The contours of the spending negotiations are still taking shape. The conference committee made up of Republican and Democratic lawmakers from both the House and the Senate began meeting yesterday.

“My focus is on the appropriation aspect,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia who is serving on the conference committee. “Whether we go bigger remains to be seen.”

Asked if negotiators should try to tackle a broader immigration overhaul, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that should depend on whether it brings them votes for a final deal. “In my view, it depends on how you get the votes,” she said. “I very much want the [recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme] given a path to citizenship. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Each party has long established its immigration battle lines. For Republicans, the president’s border wall will be the prize even as rank-and-file Republicans acknowledge that the showdown may come down to a game of semantics.

On Monday, many Republicans referred to the wall as a “barrier,” a nod to a détente over the war of words that has transpired over the president’s signature campaign promise. On Friday, Speaker Pelosi would not definitively rule out a barrier at the southern border for the Democrats.

The latter, meanwhile, still argue that they too support border security, just more in the form of technology and at ports of entry than in the form of a wall. Many Republicans have long agreed there should be some protection for individuals with DACA status even as the extent of those protections is a source of division within the party.

As part of his negotiation during the shutdown, Trump proposed $5.7 billion for his border wall in exchange for three years of protections for DACA recipients and another three years for immigrants who had Temporary Protected Status. Democrats rejected the offer, arguing they wanted a more permanent solution.

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