Sunday 19 August 2018

If you think Donald's first year was a non-stop roller coaster, tighten your belts for the second

Analysis

US President Donald Trump. Photo: PA
US President Donald Trump. Photo: PA

Carole Coleman

As President Trump begins his second year in office this weekend, belt up for another extraordinary ride. January already feels like a roller coaster of a month and, with mid-term elections due next November, partisan bickering will reach new heights.

In 2017, Donald Trump dispensed with Washington's old rules of decorum. The crafted image practised by other Oval Office occupants gave way to regular outbursts and daily doses of palace intrigue. Nothing suggests year two will be different.

For months, Robert Mueller's Russia investigation has been creeping towards Mr Trump. The president flatly denies he personally colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, and congressional committees have thus far been unable to draw a conclusion. Yet the issue refuses to die. If special counsel Mueller indeed has a smoking gun, he will have to produce it this year.

Presidential staff will continue to come and go. Key players such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have hung in there, despite serious wobbles. But the door to retirement and a book deal are always open.

The president will continue to push his campaign agenda. Mr Trump said he would change Washington. He has. He said he would reduce corporate tax. He did. He promised a conservative justice. Tick. He vowed to ban immigrants from countries he considers a risk. Tick.

But because he has pushed many of his big issues as far as they will go, Mr Trump's victories may be fewer this year. He still wants a Mexican border wall, but the costly tax cut leaves no money to build anything. Unless the budget be damned, the president's $1trn plan to renew America's creaking infrastructure cannot proceed.

The furore over the bipartisan Dream Act leaves the issue of undocumented immigrants unsolved. Such disappointments are too familiar to the Irish living illegally in America. If anything, their circumstances will become more fraught as arrests and deportations increase.

Climate change will again challenge Mr Trump. He may re-engage with the Paris climate agreement. But as evidence mounts that we humans are largely the responsible party, the rest of the world won't consent to an America-friendly deal.

Mr Trump will continue to tout his economic success. His "Make America Great Again" mantra hasn't yet created many jobs, but it has delighted the stock market. Investors who heeded last year's dire warnings that the president would wreck the economy have lost out on an additional 30pc jump in share prices.

Mr Trump's effect on the wider world requires a larger crystal ball. Vladimir Putin will win another six-year term in March and, with these two huge personalities in charge, US-Russia tensions will continue. America's decision to arm Ukraine against Russian separatists, as well as new sanctions against Moscow, will keep that relationship ice-cold.

But it's Kim Jong-un who could define Mr Trump's second year. Images of people fleeing Hawaiian beaches during last weekend's false alarm shows a heightened nervousness. In opening talks with South Korea, Kim is playing for time. But how many more missile tests can President Trump allow before he's forced to take pre-emptive action?

The Potus has yet to face a serious test. George W Bush was tested by 9/11, and Americans united behind him. How an unpredictable Trump would handle such an event remains unknown.

When he recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital, most Arab nations concluded America had disqualified itself from overseeing a new peace initiative. Could that have been Mr Trump's intention? He can say he simply delivered what other US presidents had promised, but he won't now have to host or attend any peace talks.

The glam trip to London is off too. Mr Trump does not like America's new embassy in Britain. But he may also fear public protests that would surely complicate his stay. He stirs such deep emotions among both supporters and critics that it's impossible to hear an unbiased opinion. Critics are so blinded by anger they refuse to acknowledge his wins. His loyal base are so blinkered by admiration they ignore his frequent transgressions.

Most Americans I met on a recent visit are emotionally exhausted. Miss an hour of news and you're way behind. Miss a day and you're on another planet.

The president's alleged description of Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as "shithole countries" prompted CNN's Don Lemon to remark he was "tired of being outraged".

The big question is whether the president's actions are part of a grand plan or merely stumbling around.

His plainly spoken vitriol pleases a large chunk of his supporters. Mr Trump shows no interest in winning over the permanently outraged, yet if he can keep his promises to those who elected him, he'll have a decent head start on 2020.

But the November 2018 mid-terms come first, when 33 of 100 senators and all 435 House members will seek re-election. It's possible impeachment-hungry Democrats may retake the House of Representatives.

Yet a Democratic House might change little. No longer a novice politician, Trump is more practised at manipulating public opinion and more likely to last the full four years.

Michael Wolff predicted his book 'Fire and Fury' would hasten the end, exposing the emperor as having no clothes. But Donald Trump has picked his shirt off the floor and put it on again. He's resilient.

"It's life, Jim, but not as we know it." The old 'Star Trek' line could well describe the Trump presidency and while still located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House some days seems a million miles away from its former self.

Anyone who owns a phone or TV can't escape the man. But, like him or loathe him, Americans are getting on with their lives.

  • Carole Coleman is a former RTÉ Washington Correspondent

Irish Independent

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