ANALYSIS — “Stay tuned” is a common refrain from White House aides when asked about the many cliffhangers created by President Donald Trump. But remarkably, even after three topsy-turvy months that culminated Friday in a wild Rose Garden appearance, that West Wing mantra will apply doubly over the next few weeks.
Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency at the southern border to unlock Pentagon funds for his proposed border wall came wrapped in an announcement press conference during which he veered from topic to topic, undercut his own legal position, often appeared dispassionate when discussing the emergency declaration, and made more baseless claims. That matter is already embroiled in court fights, putting perhaps his biggest campaign promise in legal limbo, and has appeared to created new distance between him and some Senate Republicans.
The president himself chose to plunge his border wall promise to his conservative base into question just as he is kicking off his re-election campaign, telling reporters, “I didn’t have to do this” right now. The domestic stakes are huge for Trump, should the courts reject the argument that he has the authority to spend dollars Congress allocated for other matters on the border barrier — not least of which is the risk of his base becoming frustrated.
Yet Trump must quickly put his latest legal and political fight on the back burner. That’s because he and his team are facing a series of high-profile deadlines at home and abroad, as well a slew of potentially explosive domestic feuds that will likely have major implications for his chances of winning a second term.
“It’s hard to believe, given the tumult of recent months, but the real rough water for President Trump still lies ahead,” said Michael Steel, a onetime senior aide to Speaker John A. Boehner and Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“How he deals with critical decisions on the economy and foreign affairs — plus fallout from investigations — in the next few months will set the stage for his campaign for re-election, and define his legacy,” Steel added.
Watch: Trump announces national emergency on border, despite likely legal challenge
Too much to handle?
But some longtime Washington hands doubt this president can focus on the list of pending matters while cable news programs blast around-the-clock coverage of the various House Democratic and Justice Department probes of just about every aspect of his professional and political lives.
Asked if he sees Trump making much headway on trade with China or North Korean peace talks, or dealing with a March 1 debt ceiling deadline at home, William Galston of the left-leaning Brookings Institution replied: “My fears outweigh my hopes.”
“As congressional oversight on the administration — and on the president, personally — intensifies, Mr. Trump is almost certain to strike back,” said Galston, who was a domestic policy aide to President Bill Clinton. “He has made it clear that he regards the investigative track and the legislative track as incompatible, which bodes ill for major policy agreements between now and the election.”
The next few weeks, in any other administration, would have a foreign policy focus, with messaging out of the West Wing reflecting a chief executive’s push to strike a trade deal with China and meet again with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about giving up his nuclear weapons.
In other White Houses, there would be an urgency from the top to show enough progress in negotiations to extend a March 1 deadline when tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese-made goods are set to balloon from 10 percent to 25 percent amid warnings of an all-out trade war that could damage the U.S. and global economies.
And in other administrations, there would be efforts to describe the president as preparing intensively for talks with Kim as the U.S. intelligence community — breaking with Trump’s rosier assessment — has stated publicly it has no evidence North Korea is dismantling its nuclear program.
But even after a long weekend at his South Florida resort after the chaotic mid-December to mid-February stretch, there are signs the president is focused on other matters.
Trump spent hours over the holiday weekend and on Tuesday blasting former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein over allegations the former has made in a new book he is promoting on just about every major TV news program.
McCabe continues to insist that Rosenstein, on numerous occasions, discussed gauging support among Cabinet members on removing Trump in 2017 via the 25th Amendment process, including seemingly volunteering to wear a wire during private meetings in the Oval Office.
Rosenstein denies both accusations, but the president lashed out at both men in a Monday tweet for plotting what he called an “illegal and treasonous ‘insurance policy’ in full action!” He was still tweeting about the matter at 11:05 a.m. Tuesday, just 25 minutes before he was scheduled to meet privately with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ahead of the Kim talks and China deadline.
This time, as cable news continued its coverage of McCabe’s morning show interviews, Trump fixated on the former FBI man’s accusation that the president, in a private conversation, called McCabe’s wife “a loser” for coming up short in a bid for the Virginia state Senate.
The president wanted his 58.4 million followers to know his side, contending that he only criticized Jill McCabe for accepting campaign contributions from Bill and Hillary Clinton. “I never called his wife a loser to him (another McCabe made up lie)!” Trump tweeted minutes before he was due in the Oval Office. (There was no Marine posted outside the West Wing at the time, a sign a president was not in the office space of the executive mansion.)
I never said anything bad about Andrew McCabe’s wife other than she (they) should not have taken large amounts of campaign money from a Crooked Hillary source when Clinton was under investigation by the FBI. I never called his wife a loser to him (another McCabe made up lie)!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2019
Galston said Trump cannot return from Asia with another vague handshake agreement with Kim. “I do not think that the president can conduct another summit … without much more concrete results than the first one yielded,” he said. “But it’s anyone’s guess whether the stage has been set for meaningful progress.”
On the China trade talks, Galston said the president “needs something he can present as a win and may be tempted to accept Chinese promises to buy more American goods without obtaining the structural changes on intellectual property, joint ventures, etc., that everyone agrees are the heart of the matter.”
With the White House and Congress focused for months on border security negotiations and averting a sequel to the partial government shutdown that left 800,000 federal workers without two paychecks in January, lawmakers left for the Presidents’ Day recess without addressing the country’s borrowing limit. Trump has accepted one bill that suspended it, but there was some consternation among his followers last week when the federal debt level sailed past $22 trillion for the first time in history.
That suspension technically ends March 1, the same day as the deadline on China tariffs and as the president is slated to be returning from his two-day Kim summit in Vietnam. But Steel said Trump and Congress will likely get a reprieve on addressing it as lawmakers return and the president departs early next week.
One GOP source expects the Treasury Department to use its so-called extraordinary measures to push any debt ceiling fight into the summer.
But Steel said even after the deadlines, summits and feuds of the next few weeks, the stakes will only get higher still for the White House.
“This White House has never faced serious scrutiny from Capitol Hill and with the [shutdown threats] over, we are going to see the first wave of deeply intrusive hearings from Washington Democrats in the next month,” he said. “They are going to be well-publicized, zealous, and have zero regard for President Trump’s ‘red lines’ — and he’s not going to enjoy the experience at all.”
Amid the final moments on Friday of the shutdown showdown and border emergency drama, a White House official momentarily flashed how the dramatics from their norms-breaking boss weigh on his staff.
A reporter noted how wild the last three months had been. The official responded just moments before the president stepped into the Rose Garden: “Never a dull moment.”