WASHINGTON — If you were expecting a smooth, uncontroversial start to President Trump’s first full business day of the new year Tuesday, you were wrong.
It began with a flurry of misleading or inaccurate tweets sent by the president between the hours of 5 and 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, on topics including Hillary Clinton, his own Justice Department, the news media, protests in the Middle East, North Korea, and even commercial aviation. The day continued on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where members of Congress — now in a midterm election year that looks increasingly favorable to Democrats — returned to find pressing legislative deadlines on immigration and government spending packages.
Tuesday night, Trump taunted North Korea, stating on Twitter: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
It was a response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, in which he threatened the United States by saying he has a ‘‘nuclear button’’ on his office desk and warned that ‘‘the whole territory of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear strike.’’
Trump recently marked First Night by saying the country had grown “stronger and smarter” under his leadership. Political observers, however, see a different picture: With the tricky congressional slate, the coming elections, foreign challenges looming in Iran and North Korea, and Trump’s penchant for the divisive, the new year is sure to bring the nation, Trump, and the party he leads even more political turmoil.
“If you thought 2017 was a bitter tough political year, heading into a midterm with everything at stake will be more contentious, more bitter, and more difficult,” said Sam Geduldig, a former top Republican congressional staffer who now leads a public affairs and lobbying shop, CGCN Group.
“We’ve seen no evidence that Trump’s capable of learning or changing his behavior,” added Alan Abramowitz, the political scientist and presidential scholar based at Emory University. “ This is what we’ll keep seeing.”
More bad news for Republicans: On Wednesday, Alabama Democrat Doug Jones — who beat out Republican Roy Moore in a special election — will be sworn in to the Senate. The ceremony will shave the Republicans’ majority down to 51-49.
Still, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted 2018 was off to a good start for the administration. In an afternoon press briefing, Sanders dismissed the impact of the tweets and said the White House was completely focused on its policy priorities.
“The president was elected because of his ambitious agenda and his desire to get a lot of things done — we’re going to focus on that,” Sanders said.
“We’re excited about having a successful 2018 as we did 2017,” she added.
Republicans closed out last year with a major legislative win once thought improbable, passing a sweeping overhaul of the tax code by Christmas and making good on a Trump promise.
But there’s no time to bask in the glow of victory as 2018 is just a few days old and Republicans already must confront the messy business of running the government for which they still control all the levers of power.
Most immediately, Congress has just a few weeks to hammer out a deal to keep the government funded. The current stopgap spending deal expires Jan. 19, and the tangle of big-ticket policy items left undone last year has many D.C. forecasters giving elevated odds of a shutdown later this month.
Democrats believe they have a lot of leverage to demand policy concessions on key priorities, including protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation, in exchange for helping Republicans avoid a shutdown that voters would most likely blame on the GOP.
At the top of Democrats’ list is finding a solution for the looming March deadline for the end of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides work permits for nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Trump in September said the program would end in March unless Congress interceded and codified it. Though he has expressed sympathy for children affected, Trump tweeted Tuesday that Democrats were merely playing politics with the issue of immigration, and not interested in finding a permanent and working solution.
“Democrats are doing nothing for DACA — just interested in politics,” Trump tweeted. “DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems, will start “falling in love” with Republicans and their President! We are about RESULTS.”
The top four congressional leaders — House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer — are slated to discuss the path forward on DACA Wednesday at the White House with top administration officials.
In addition to DACA and the government, other major issues on the agenda include reaching a long-term deal to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which helps provide coverage to about 9 million children nationwide, how to provide disaster relief spending for hurricane-ravaged areas, and basic agreement between the two parties on the appropriate level of spending for domestic and military programs. There is also the question of the lingering legislation aimed at shoring up aspects of the Affordable Care Act that was promised to GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine in return for her vote on the tax overhaul, though House conservatives detest that legislation.
With Trump’s souring poll numbers front and center, many liberals — and some Republicans — could be emboldened to demand more from the White House.
“With the midterm elections coming up, that’s going to make it more difficult,” Abramowitz said. “They’re going to need some Democratic votes to get stuff done and it’s very difficult to see Democrats working with Trump at this point.”
With so much on the congressional plate, some are again questioning Trump’s ability to shepherd Congress on tough issues. Trump “doesn’t have any intention or capacity to fundamentally remake himself,” said Julian Zelizer, the Princeton professor and presidential scholar. “He’s going to continue to let Trump be Trump, because he assumes that is a successful strategy.”
Washington has devolved into a reactionary place governed by the whims of Trump, which constantly change, said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist and Trump critic.
“It’s always going to be led by the impulsiveness of this guy,” Wilson said. “There’s no bigger plan. There’s no strategy. There’s no overwhelming thematic element to it, it’s just impulse. It’s just reaction. It’s just momentary emotion and momentary gratification.”
One area of possible compromise could be on infrastructure. Since the beginning of the presidential campaign, a sweeping investment into America’s increasingly decrepit infrastructure system was a rare point of agreement between at least some Republicans, including Trump, and Democrats. Geduldig, the GOP strategist, said his firm is working on building a bipartisan coalition around an infrastructure bill that would prioritize spending in poor communities, which includes significant support from the House Freedom Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.