After nearly four years of improbable political momentum, President Donald Trump demonstrated Tuesday his brand of race-baiting and fear-mongering politics – which inflamed his base voters but scorched the rest – can still win some big elections.
That, it appeared, was proof enough to the President his dark impulses haven’t led him wrong. Even losing the House of Representatives and providing Democrats their first real check on the presidency seemed unlikely to force a reckoning at the White House over Trump’s inflammatory tone. ’
Trump will continue a presidential tradition by holding a post-midterm election news conference at 11:30 a.m., ET.
Aides say he will claim victory for Republican gains in the Senate and key races for governor. He is expected to give remarks about his role in the midterms before taking questions.
“He feels vindicated,” a Trump confidant said.
The President’s mood is upbeat, aides say, largely because he is able to point to major victories in races where he campaigned, particularly in Florida, Indiana, Missouri and others. He will likely downplay – or ignore – disappointments, particularly losses in governor’s races.
But the voters’ split verdict will eventually force Trump to reckon with a changed political reality as he quickly turns toward his own re-election.
The newly powerful Democrats will not only limit Trump’s legislative ambitions. Subpoena powers mean a raft of new probes could distract and occupy the White House as Trump fights for a second term. While Democratic leaders have downplayed the chances they will seek to impeach him, the possibility now looms in a way it did not when Republicans were in control.
Trump is mindful of Democratic investigations to come, but a presidential confidant said most allies do not believe the President understands the full weight of what’s ahead and how things will change for him during the second half of his first term.
The anticipated Democratic probes come on top of the existing investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, which is expected to scale up now that the elections have concluded. Trump and his lawyers will have to determine in the next weeks whether to comply with Mueller’s request for an interview, or at least provide written answers to his questions.
White House officials are bracing for developments in Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Room for reflection?
In the midterms’ waning hours, Trump mused of a desire to dial back his rhetoric and unite the country like a “beautiful puzzle.”
“I would like to have a much softer tone. I feel, to a certain extent, I have no choice,” he told the administration-friendly Sinclair Broadcast Group in an interview. “But maybe I do.”
There is scant evidence in the President’s short political career of self-reflection or message refinement. Instead, officials and confidants said Trump is more likely to muddle through the changed political landscape with the mixture of bombast and deal-making that propelled him into office in the first place.
“We’ll just have to work a little bit differently,” the President said Monday on an airport tarmac in Indiana, his second of three stops on a final barnstorm through red states. “It’ll all work out.”
Trump spent Election Day behind closed doors, having mailed in his own absentee ballot weeks ago. He phoned congressional leaders and Republican political advisers from his third-floor residence and visited a “war room” in the White House East Wing for updates on critical races.
Family members and friends, including ex-campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, and informal advisers like Blackstone chief Stephen Schwarzman, joined him in the evening for a viewing party, snacking on pizza and tiny hot dogs as they watched results come in on television.
He phoned both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to congratulate them on their victories, even though his spokeswoman suggested earlier that a call to Pelosi wasn’t necessary since she wouldn’t automatically become the presumptive speaker of the 116th Congress.
Trump is poised to shuffle his Cabinet, hoping to replace officials he’s deemed disloyal or ineffective, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with more pliant replacements. Other administration aides, both in the West Wing and at agencies, are expected to exit, wary of being implicated in the wash of investigations that could soon descend.
Officials said Trump is unlikely to take much of a break from the stump. He’ll soon begin holding rallies explicitly for his re-election, events that boost his mood and allow him to escape Washington.
“This fall made him realize how much he loves rallies and how much he missed them,” one Trump confidant said.
But for the immediate future, Trump will turn to foreign policy, an area with wide executive leeway that past presidents have used as a refuge during moments of political chastening. He joins European leaders this weekend in Paris for a ceremony commemorating the World War I armistice, and meets in Buenos Aires at the end of the month with Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The new landscape
Trump will return from his pair of upcoming foreign trips forced to confront an unfriendly House of Representatives, with the legislative promises he made over the course of the past several months trimmed. The 10-percent tax cut Trump promised middle-class Americans – a loose objective to begin with – seems in doubt. Democrats ardently oppose funding for a border wall, the signature promise of Trump’s first presidential campaign.
The President plans to show areas of potential – and limited – cooperation with Democrats, largely on infrastructure. The White House legislative affairs team has been talking to Democratic and Republican House leaders about this for several weeks.
And there are some areas Democrats and Trump appear poised to cooperate. The NAFTA re-write Trump forged with Canada and Mexico could gain approval if some of its labor and enforceability provisions are strengthened. Drug pricing and criminal justice reform legislation have both gained bipartisan support. A long-awaited infrastructure overhaul is a stated priority of Democrats and Republicans.
“At the end of the day, the President’s going to work with whoever comes into office. We have a lot of things on our agenda and we look forward to getting them all done,” press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on a darkened White House driveway Tuesday. “The President’s agenda isn’t going to change regardless of whose party is there.”
Even before Democrats take power, the two sides will have to come to an agreement in the lame duck Congress on government funding or face a December shutdown.
With the Senate still in Republican hands, Trump’s push to appoint conservative federal judges will likely continue apace. Should he need it, Trump still has the power to veto legislation he dislikes, a prerogative he has yet to exercise.
But the legislative hurdles represent only a fraction of the challenges that a divided Congress will pose in the coming year. When they assume control in January, Democrats will have the power to launch investigations into all manner of Trump dealings, from his ties to Russia to his business practices. A prime target appeared to be his tax returns, which he’s refused to release to the public.
Democrats themselves have been somewhat divided on the issue, wary of appearing blindly political in their newfound leadership roles. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, has said she will focus on Democrats’ legislative agenda, not on impeaching the President. But even lesser proceedings have a way of distracting White House lawyers and aides.
Kellyanne Conway, the President’s counselor, shrugged off the notion of Democrats using new investigative powers in the new Congress.
“I guess they can try, but he’s going to continue trying to work with them on the agenda because he’s a policy guy and he’s – they’re talking about investigations and subpoenas and he’s talking about issues and substance so it’s quite a contrast,” she said.
Past as precedent
As Trump finds himself politically weakened, he can at least take solace in the experiences of his three most recent predecessors.
Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all lost control of the House during their presidencies. Two of those presidents, Clinton and Obama, went on to win re-election two years later, partly by running against the opposition Congress.
In the aftermath of their losses, those men acknowledged their own culpability.
“I accept my share of the responsibility in the result of the elections,” Clinton told reporters in 1994 after Republicans seized control of the House for the first time in decades.
“I share a large part of the responsibility,” Bush echoed in 2006 when he described a “thumping” for Republicans. Obama uttered the phrase “take responsibility” six times during his news conference in 2010 after what he deemed a Republican “shellacking” in the House.
Whether Trump accepts the same responsibility for losing the House on Wednesday remains to be seen. But if his past actions offer any guidance, the answer is doubtful.