White House

Republicans expect the worst in 2019 but see glimmers of hope from doom and gloom

Republicans who support President Donald Trump are bracing for an onslaught of congressional investigations and court battles that could paralyze the White House over the next year.

But they also see windows – albeit small ones – of opportunity where Trump might be able to shift the narrative from the doom and gloom.

After winning back control of the House of Representatives, Democrats are gearing up to use their subpoena power to unleash dozens of investigations against Trump, his administration, his campaign, his business and his family.

They will try to force him to hand over his tax returns, scrutinize his family separation policy at the border and seek to unravel any business ties Trump and his extended family may have with Russia, Saudi Arabia and other foreign powers.

Republicans allied with the White House expect “all-out warfare” with one investigation after another. But with Democratic candidates also vying for attention as they launch their own campaigns to unseat Trump in 2020, Republicans see moments where the public scrutiny could shift to Trump’s advantage.

“I think a lot of different things are going to happen. None of it is going to be all that fun if you’re in the Trump administration, but some of it may inure to Trump’s benefit if the Democrats can’t control themselves,” said Scott Jennings, who was subpoenaed by the Senate when he worked for Republican George W. Bush and the Democrats took control of Congress.

The tone for the next year was set during Trump’s extraordinary 17 minute argument over border wall funding with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to be named House speaker this week. The clash revealed the challenges ahead for Trump as he faces a newly emboldened Democratic-run Congress that is more willing to stand up to his threats of a government shutdown or question his “manhood,” as Pelosi did after the meeting.

Trump and supporters have said that the Democratic takeover of the House could be good for him because of his ability to dominate the more unsavory sides of campaigning. It provides him with a clear foil to run against.

“They can look at us, and we can look at them, and it’ll go back and forth,” Trump said in a news conference following the midterm election. “And it’ll probably be very good for me politically. I could see it being extremely good politically, because I think I’m better at that game than they are, actually.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, who is expected to take over as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has already issued 51 letters to the heads of various government agencies and White House and Trump Organization officials seeking documents for a series of congressional investigations.

It’s not just Capitol Hill that Trump has to worry about. He’s also got to be ready for the court challenges.

The Supreme Court just blocked the Trump administration from enforcing a ban on asylum for any immigrants who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Lawyers are also attacking Trump’s sanctuary city policies in state courts, arguing state laws prevent local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration agents.

But it’s not going to be all bad for Trump and the Republicans.

The Democrats will have “their own side-show” with more than a dozen expected candidates — from California’s Kamala Harris to New York’s Michael Bloomberg — campaigning against each other for the 2020 nomination. That is expected to take the spotlight off the president. It may also give him a chance to paint progressives as out of touch with mainstream Americans, Republicans say.

“‘How far to crazy town will this group go,” said a former Trump official who remains in close contact with the White House. “It’s going to be a really interesting dynamic. Everyone is going to be trying to constantly outdo one another. And that is going to drive a lot of headlines. It’s just unavoidable.”

Democrats have already gotten a taste of the potential bloody battle ahead.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have started to take public shots at one political darling, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, who shattered fundraising records and nearly upset Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in the midterms.

Democratic strategists acknowledge that it will hurt them if Democrats turn on each other, but they argue those who go ugly will be quickly punished.

Jeff Hauser, a longtime progressive strategist, doesn’t expect the Democratic primary will be vicious.

The party is united behind defeating Trump. The greater challenge may be who will be best at making Trump look bad.

“The Democratic candidates are basically going to eviscerate Trump with each other just like in the way that late night hosts compete for the best jokes at Trump’s expense,” Hauser said. “That will hurt Trump.”

Some former top administration officials worry about morale amid the ongoing departures of more non-partisan leaders like Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and what it means for the direction of the administration. Turnover at the top of the administration has reached 65 percent, according to the Brookings Institution.

“I think the talk that I’ve started to hear is that, ‘Is this the time to leave,’ said one former high ranking official at the White House. “Can I still be an effective force for good if I stay or am I just kind of enabling some of the bad things?”

Political strategists talk often about whether Democrats but will try to impeach Trump, but they acknowledge he remains too powerful. The greater threat is Democrats will overreach in their attempts to pin the administration down.

It was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who resigned after he led eager House Republicans to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998. Clinton was acquitted by the Senate.

Jennings said it’d “absolutely work to his benefit” if Democrats tried to impeach Trump. But he also says the Trump administration can learn from former President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Obama, like Trump, suffered mid-term losses, but had a strong loyal base who helped him build a hefty campaign stash with small party donors.

Jennings predicts, like in 2012, the other party’s team will have a large, messy primary that includes proposals that many would rather not have debated in front of mainstream voters.

And he compared being “old or white or male” during the Democratic primary to being “establishment or Mormon” during the Republican primary in 2012.

“I see a lot of the same kind of stuff and it all wound up that an incumbent president was able to put something together to take advantage of a fractured opposition that just couldn’t find itself in time to pull together a campaign to beat an incumbent president.”

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.