Tuesday 20 August 2019

One year on and the problems are mounting for Donald's revolution

'Over the next 12 months Mr Trump will have to start making endorsements. Pick the wrong side and he will anger either his party colleagues or support base' Photo: Getty Images
'Over the next 12 months Mr Trump will have to start making endorsements. Pick the wrong side and he will anger either his party colleagues or support base' Photo: Getty Images

Ben Riley-Smith

Where were you when Donald Trump won the presidency? The election of a real-estate mogul and TV star to the White House a year ago is deemed a historic moment for supporters and critics alike.

Finally, America had the outsider it needed to smash the establishment - or a uniquely unqualified egotist, depending on your stance.

Mr Trump certainly has not disappointed on the entertainment front, with much of his tenure dominated by the sound and light of a first-time politician coming to terms with power.

Some campaign pledges have fallen by the wayside: Obamacare remains unrepealed; Iran still has its nuclear deal. Others are making slow progress on Capitol Hill.

Yet while Washington DC is still reeling from his victory, attention is already turning to the 2018 mid-term elections.

They are a crucial challenge for the US president. Currently, Republicans have a majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives, making legislation far easier - in theory at least.

It would take just three Republicans losing to Democrats to flip the Senate, ending any hopes of pushing through laws without the backing of political opponents.

So too is it a test for Mr Trump's authority. The series of congressional elections is the first real chance to see if his fabled support base - blue-collar voters in 'rust belt' states - is still on board.

Between then and now, Mr Trump must navigate a series of disputes that look set to define how the electorate will act and whether his first term is remembered as a success.

A civil war is raging in the Republican Party right now. Steve Bannon, the former White House senior aide who still has Mr Trump's ear, is leading a campaign to take out the party's incumbent congressmen.

He has grown infuriated by the failure of the Grand Old Party, the Republicans, to support Mr Trump's legislative agenda.

Attempts to repeal Obamacare collapsed earlier this year, while an overhaul of the tax system being demanded before Christmas is not guaranteed to pass.

Mr Bannon has decided that a shake-up is needed.

He is touring the country, finding outsider candidates to challenge Republican congressmen for their party's nomination at the mid-terms.

The hope is the current anti-establishment fervour will see incumbents ousted and replaced with newbies more loyal to Mr Trump.

But the drive has left the US president in an awkward position: Who should he back? Instinctively, Mr Trump favours the insurgents, but he needs Republican senators on side if he wants to pass laws any time soon.

Over the next 12 months Mr Trump will have to start making endorsements. Pick the wrong side and he will anger either his party colleagues or support base.

With the end of the year approaching, Mr Trump is still yet to pass a single piece of major legislation since entering office.

He suffered the ignominy of seeing attempts to 'repeal and replace' Obamacare - a flagship campaign promise - defeated by rebellions from his own party. While that remains a goal, focus has turned to achieving what the US president has dubbed the "largest tax cut in history".

The plan is bold: corporation tax slashed from 35pc to 20pc; the so-called 'death tax' on inheritance scrapped; almost halving the number of income tax bands.

Yet the addition to the deficient is eye-watering - an estimated $1.5tn (€1.3tn) - and critics are working hard to frame it as a tax break for the well-off.

Republican leaders see the legislation as a chance to paper over their differences with the president and deliver the first tax overhaul for three decades. Failure to have a legislative 'win' come next November could be touted by Mr Trump's opponents as proof that he is out of his depth.

In foreign policy, there is sense, according to some, of taking a hardline stance against troublesome states or negotiating rivals to get them to change course.

The 'bad cop, good cop' theory fits what we know of recent disputes.

On North Korea, Mr Trump has threatened "fire and fury" while Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, pursues diplomacy.

With the Paris climate change agreement, Mr Trump said he wants out but other government figures have indicated they could return if changes are made.

He threatened the Mexican president with tariffs but remained open to other options, a leaked call transcript showed, while on trade deals his hardline opening pitches are expected to soften. The problem for Mr Trump is when the other side does not budge. In the two most intractable disputes which he promised to fix - North Korea and Iran - this is especially true.

Mr Trump pledged to be ruthless on North Korea, yet beyond tougher rhetoric, his efforts have not gone beyond diplomacy and Kim Jong-un is refusing to back down.

On Iran, he held back on ripping up the nuclear deal, providing Tehran agrees to extra restrictions, but there is no sign that will happen.

North Korea's nuclear programme and Iran's nuclear agreement could still be there in a year's time. What will Trump voters make of those broken pledges?

And then there is the cloud hanging over the entire presidency. Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump campaign links with Russia has quickened pace.

The charging of three campaign aides with crimes is taken as a sign of intent.

Paul Manafort, Mr Trump's ex-campaign chairman, and his 'right-hand man', Richard Gates, were well known figures.

But George Papadopoulos, the Trump foreign policy adviser who gave misleading statements about contacts with Russians, was little known before his charge was revealed. Of more concern to the White House, he had been co-operating with the FBI for three months, possibly including wearing a wire to talk to old campaign contacts.

Mr Mueller appears to be deploying a 'flipping' technique: charge a subordinate, convince them to co-operate, then get them to grass up bigger players.

It has made Trump allies reconsider their co-operative approach to the investigation, which has so far seen the White House turning over relevant campaign documents.


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