President Donald Trump is responding to a midterm election that represented a rebuke for his polarizing and aggressive behavior by recommitting to his brazen political style, setting up a turbulent two years to come.
Trump’s busy weekend served as a microcosm for his presidency as a whole, as he seethed with insults, launched attacks on key figures who have criticized him and returned to fiery rhetoric on immigration.
In one spat, he unloaded on retired Adm. William McRaven, former head of Special Operations Command, and attacked the military for not having killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before 2011.
He also dismissed a Washington Post report that the CIA believes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of the paper’s journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a possible fresh example of the President ignoring his intelligence agencies when it conflicts with his political goals.
And Trump revived alarmist talk over a caravan of asylum seekers marching across Mexico toward the southern border, on which he anchored a midterm campaign that was laced with falsehoods and racism.
“The Mayor of Tijuana, Mexico, just stated that ‘the City is ill-prepared to handle this many migrants, the backlog could last 6 months’” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “Likewise, the U.S. is ill-prepared for this invasion, and will not stand for it. They are causing crime and big problems in Mexico. Go home!”
And days after White House press secretary Sarah Sanders reacted to a court ordering the return of the confiscated credential of CNN’s Jim Acosta by demanding “decorum,” Trump blasted a vulgar tweet at a longtime foe.
“So funny to see little Adam Schitt (D-CA) talking about the fact that Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was not approved by the Senate, but not mentioning the fact that Bob Mueller (who is highly conflicted) was not approved by the Senate!” Trump wrote, referring to Adam Schiff, who will run the House Intelligence Committee next year.
For any other president, these attacks and comments would represent an extraordinary breach of White House norms.
For Trump, they reflect his own combative temperament and willingness to flout conventions and political correctness that he clearly believes are key to his strong bond with his most loyal supporters.
His jab at Schiff was also a reminder of how the Russia investigation, now thought to be in a critical stage, hovers over everything else that happens in Trump’s presidency.
Trump said he will submit written answers to questions posed by Mueller about alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia this week.
No changing course
The President’s determination to follow his instincts and reluctance to moderate his confrontational approach suggests that there has been little self reflection about the Democratic capture of the House that was fueled on a rejection of Trump by suburban voters.
It may also indicate that the President will win or lose in his re-election race in 2020 by betting on his strategy of mobilizing an angry political base to win the electoral college, as he did in 2016. Such an approach helped him win Senate seats – albeit on a favorable electoral map for the GOP – this year.
But exit polls showed that 38% of people who cast a vote in House races did so to oppose Trump, compared to 26% who did so to support him.
One possible remedy would be for Trump to moderate the polarizing behavior that damaged him with women voters and independents in urban areas, to try to win them back to the fold in 2020.
There have been rare moments of bipartisanship from Trump in recent days. Democrats and Republicans gathered at the White House to celebrate a bill that represents a small step towards criminal justice reform.
Trump tweeted tributes to two foes he had furiously criticized during the midterms – Democratic gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida after they formally conceded defeat.
Many Republicans remain mystified why Trump does not play his best card more often by building his political message around the strong economy. His failure to do so in the midterms may have cost him House seats.
“I recognize it’s boring to go out every single day and remind everybody that unemployment is below 4%,” said Scott Jennings, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, on CNN’s “New Day” on Monday.
“But I think embracing the boring here and doing what he hates, which is to stick with the script, rather than create original programing every day is the right answer.”
There are clear signs, however, that Trump is planning to become even less constrained by norms, as evident in his talk of changing his Cabinet.
By appointing Whitaker, a Mueller critic, in place of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the President has already removed an impediment to his desire to control the Justice Department.
On “Fox News Sunday” he said he wants more aggressive enforcement of his hardline immigration policies.
Referring to reports that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is on the way out, Trump said: “I want her to get much tougher, and we’ll see what happens there. But I want to be extremely tough.”
One senior administration official characterized the President’s goals in reshaping his team for CNN’s Jake Tapper last week.
“In this administration, there are arsonists and there are firefighters. The President is looking to get rid of the firefighters. The more he does, the faster his administration is going to burn down,” the official said.
The weekend’s developments with McRaven and in the Khashoggi case were revealing of the President’s approach.
McRaven was prominent during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and so he was a characteristic target for the President.
“OK, he’s a Hilary Clinton backer and an Obama-backer, and frankly … wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?” Trump told Chris Wallace of Fox News.
McRaven responded by telling CNN that he did not “back Hillary Clinton or anyone else” and said he admired Obama and Bush for leadership in challenging times.
“I stand by my comment that the President’s attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime,” McRaven said.
The Washington Post report about the CIA’s conclusions on Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul complicated Trump’s efforts to safeguard his close relationship with the Saudi crown prince and will fuel a building confrontation with those in Congress who want serious action against Riyadh.
The President and the State Department said that no final determination has been made about who ordered Khashoggi’s death.
“Will anybody really know?” the President asked Wallace. “At the same time we do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.”