January 3 saw a new congress sworn in in Washington that represents the results from November’s midterm elections which saw devastating losses for Republicans. While the GOP maintained their control of the Senate and gained two seats there, it was in the House of Representatives that saw the biggest changes. Democrats won 40 seats to gain the majority and control of the House. Midterm elections normally do not benefit the party of the sitting president, but the gains made by Democrats during this past election were the largest in U.S. history by either party. The previous record was set by Democrats during Watergate. The election was a rebuke of Trump and his policies and are guaranteed to increase his woes.
Shortly after the new Congress was sworn in, Democrats elected Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. She has promised more thorough investigations into Trump and does not rule out indictment or impeachment. In an interview that aired hours before she became Speaker of the House for a second time in her career, Pelosi discussed the idea of indicting a sitting president. She commented, “I think that that is an open discussion in terms of the law.” Currently it is Justice Department policy (as opposed to actual law) that a sitting president cannot be indicted, though the legality is debated and has never been tested. Some in the Democratic party have also been outspoken about their desire to impeach Trump, however, Pelosi has pushed back against that rhetoric and is waiting to see the findings of the Mueller investigation before seriously considering impeachment. In the same interview Pelosi discussed impeachment. “We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason.”
On the Senate side of Congress, former Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney, who won the Senate seat vacated by Orin Hatch in Utah, wrote a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing President Trump. In it he declared that Trump “has not risen to the mantle of the office.” He wrote, “To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow ‘our better angels.’ A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.” Romney’s views still appear to be a minority among his Republican colleagues.
As Democrats gained the levers of power this week, they were met by a partial government shutdown over Trump’s proposed border wall which started on December 22. Trump failed to get funding for his border wall even during the two years his own party controlled Congress, and it is improbable that he will get funding with the Democrats controlling the House. Pelosi promises she will not fund the wall. Yet, Trump remains intransigent and says he will keep the government shut down for “months or even years.” Trump also denies he is the cause of the the shutdown despite having previously taken credit for it during a heated Oval Office meeting last month with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Trump said during that meeting in front of press cameras, “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. And I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”
Currently, it appears Trump has painted himself in a political corner that he cannot get out of without breaking his promise. One move he says he is considering is to declare emergency powers to fund the wall. “We can call a national emergency because of the security… I haven’t done it. I may do it but we can call a national emergency and build it very quickly,” he said during a White House press conference this week. However, that idea remains legally dubious and has never been tested. Moreover, the idea of an emergency would be extremely difficult for Trump to legally defend because illegal immigration across the border with Mexico is at the lowest levels since 2001. The numbers have dropped from roughly 250,000 per year to about 40,000 per year. Arrests of people crossing the border illegally are at nearly a 50 year low. Illegal drug traffic across the southern border happens at entry checkpoints rather than through desolate regions. There is no publicly available evidence that ISIS or Al Qaeda supporters have ever used the border with Mexico to cross into the U.S. Whatever emergency there is on the southern border, it appears to have passed years ago or is a figment of the imagination. For Trump to declare an emergency to fund the border wall would be an act of political desperation that would only end up in failure.
The overall picture does not look good for Trump with Democrats now controlling the House of Representatives. He had an extremely difficult time getting legislation passed when his own party controlled all of Congress. So much so in fact, his first real legislative victory—his tax bill overhaul—came almost a full year after he came to office. Now that Republicans no longer have a monopoly on power, getting legislation passed looks to be a more difficult prospect. But that might be the least of Trump’s worries. The Democrats now have the power of subpoena and will investigate areas of Trump’s actions that Republicans refused to look at. The year ahead does not look good for Trump.