President Donald Trump awoke to a different Washington Wednesday, facing for the time a Democratic House that is both opposed to his vision for the nation and determined to investigate his administration — a combination that will make it virtually impossible to accomplish much in his second two years in office.
There are only a handful of issues that Trump and a progressive Democratic House might try to work on together — spending money to repair the nation’s highways, airports and bridges and offering tax breaks to middle-class families — but even with those, Republicans and Democrats are far apart on the details, according to members of both parties.
House Democrats immediately made it clear that they will use their new power to subpoena documents and force administration officials to testify about a slew of issues from federal agencies spending taxpayer money at Trump resorts to whether Trump aides colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. On Wednesday, the president fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump repeatedly criticized for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
Many House Democrats who won did so on a message of holding Trump accountable. “Mr.. President, ready or not, here we come,” said Democrat Donna Shalala, who was elected to a district held by a Republican, as she left the stage of her victory party.
“Yesterday’s election was...a vote to restore the health of our democracy,” said Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader who expects to be elected speaker, in a day-after news conference.
There’s not much time to get anything done. Soon, Trump and a slew of Democrats — including half dozen or more senators — will be running for president, all but ensuring that attempts to work on major legislation will stop after the 2020 race is in full swing later next year.
Some Trump allies predict Democrats will take their investigations too far, which will backfire on them in 2020 presidential election.
“It’s a gift from God,” said an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign who is close to the White House. “We had to lose the House to win the White House in 2020. The Democrats are going to overreach so badly. They can’t help themselves.”
Trump, who called Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Tuesday night, told a news conference that he hopes to work with Democrats on policies to promote economic growth, lower the cost of prescription drugs, and improve health care, infrastructure and trade.
“It really could be a beautiful, bipartisan type of situation,” he said. “Now is the time for members of both parties to join together, put partisanship aside, and keep the American economic miracle going strong.”
Pelosi said she hopes to work with Trump on infrastructure and prescription drug prices, among other issues. “We believe we have a responsibility to seek common ground where we can,” she said.
Trump said he will turn to executive orders even more to push his policy goals — a common tactic by presidents whose parties lose Congress and already one of this president’s favored practices even when his own party controlled Congress.
“I don’t think it’s a death knell for the agenda,” said a Trump adviser who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Republicans maintained control of the Senate, ensuring Trump will have at least some allies on Capitol Hill but their slim majority means they won’t be able to overcome the 60 votes needed to advance major legislation.
Ken Duberstein, President Ronald Reagan’s second-term chief of staff, said Democrats have an incentive to work with Trurmp because they will need to run on some accomplishments when they are on the ballot in 2020. “They can’t win just by saying they took the House,” he said.
William Galston, a former White House adviser to Bill Clinton, agreed. “The ones who did well in suburban districts in red states will think about how to position themselves for the next two years,” he said.
Trump will push Congress to find money for a border wall but Democrats will be looking for policy priorities in return, including providing a pathway to legal status for young immigrants who came to the country illegally. He may try to fulfill Republicans’ promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but Democrats will want to expand access to Medicaid and protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, an issue that helped them win the majority.
Democrats could investigate the firing of FBI Director James Comey, whether officials handling the nation’s secrets have the appropriate security clearances and the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. They want to look further into whether Trump aides helped Russia interfere in the 2016 campaign, including what role, if any, the NRA played. And they want to examine Trump’s tax returns and study whether he is violating the Constitution by doing business with foreign governments.
Trump threatened to have the Senate investigate House Democrats who are investigating him. “They can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate, and a lot of very questionable things were done, between leaks of classified information and many other elements that should not have taken place,” he said.
Some of Trump’s biggest critics will lead the committees investigating him: Adam Schiff would lead the Intelligence Committee;; Maxine Waters would lead the Financial Services Committee, Jerry Nadler would lead the Judiciary Committee, and Elijah Cummings would lead the Oversight Committee.
Cummings, D-Maryland, said Wednesday oversight has been “virtually nonexistent” for the past two years as Republicans failed to subpoena documents from the White House in dozens of inquiries when the White House has failed to comply.
“President Trump has been eroding the foundations of our democracy,” he said. “Yesterday, the American people voted to change that. They voted for transparency and accountability. They voted to make sure our government works effectively and efficiently for the American people. And they voted to bring integrity back to government.”
American Oversight, a group founded to hold the Trump administration accountable, is launching an initiative to use public records lawsuits to force the release of documents likely to be the subject of congressional investigations but perhaps ignored by the Trump administration.
Those that helped elect Democrats immediately said they would be watching to see if they followed through on holding Trump accountable.
“Voters will be watching for them to do the job they were elected to do right out of the gate,” said Tom Steyer, a billionaire activist who has pushed impeachment. “Winning a majority means very little if our leaders are unwilling to use their power to stand up for their constituents and our democracy.”
Lesley Clark in Miami contributed.