Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address comes at a particularly tumultuous time in his unusually tumultuous presidency.
Wrenching legislative battles over immigration, a potential government shutdown, and the debt ceiling lie ahead. Trump is the most unpopular president at this point in his term since modern polling was invented, and his party has been paying the price in recent special elections — which bodes ominously for the GOP in 2018.
All the while, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has been looming larger than ever, with Trump’s team in talks with Mueller’s about a possible sit-down interview with the president. Indeed, Trump is facing so many challenges that the recent report that he arranged a hush money payment to a porn star to cover up an affair seems relatively minor.
Yet not everything is going badly for President Trump — far from it.
While the economy isn’t doing wildly better than in the late Obama years, it’s doing generally fine — and one highly visible indicator, the stock market, has been reaching new heights. Plus, after spending most of his first year without legislative accomplishments, Trump has signed the tax cut that the GOP so craved into law, and he can take credit for success in judicial confirmations as well.
Republicans in Congress have for the most part circled the wagons around the president rather than abandoning him. They’ve generally downplayed previous criticisms and expressed indifference to new scandals, apparently due to a calculation that their own electoral fates are linked to his.
Furthermore, there have been signs that Trump is having more success at bending law enforcement agencies to his will. Several FBI officials are leaving their posts after months of criticism by Trump and his allies, and conservatives have found traction with a counternarrative in which the real scandal is the behavior of anti-Trump FBI officials.
Trump’s presidency isn’t exactly in a good place right now. But the outcomes of the major political battles of 2018 — in Congress, in the elections, and with Mueller — are yet to be determined.
The Trump administration is facing three major political challenges
1) Congressional battles
The marquee legislative battle of Trump’s second year in office appears to be immigration. Back in September, Trump’s administration announced that it would wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives deportation protections to hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children.
But protections for DACA recipients are overwhelmingly popular — so Trump called on Congress to “legalize” the program, arguing that this is what he truly wants.
It’s now clear, though, that the Trump administration is deliberately holding the fates of these hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients hostage, in an effort to force Democrats to agree to major concessions on immigration policy in exchange for legal status for the DREAMers. For now, at least, the administration is maintaining that funding for Trump’s promised border wall isn’t enough — it’s demanding major cuts to legal immigration as well.
It is unclear if Trump and his White House have the skill, or even really the desire, to cut a deal on the matter. Negotiations could go awry in any number of ways. Democrats may well feel the price Trump’s hardliners are demanding is too high. If Trump does cut a deal — as he says he wants — he could well be blasted by his base for “caving” to Democrats.
All this will unfold against the backdrop of further government funding fights, with Democrats unhappy at how the recent brief shutdown turned out, and House conservatives sounding unenthused about backing another spending bill. A deadline on the debt ceiling, too, looms ahead — and if no deal is reached on that, the consequences will be far more serious than a brief government shutdown. Things could get very messy indeed.
2) Trump is not popular — and the midterms are looking grim for Republicans
The stakes of the 2018 midterms are remarkably high. Depending on how well Democrats do, the party could kill the Republican legislative agenda in Congress, gain new powers to investigate the Trump administration, get the ability to block Trump’s nominees from being confirmed, pass new liberal state laws in many parts of the country, and win many offices with power over the 2021 redistricting process.
Conversely, if Republicans hold Congress, they could revive their legislative agenda and have another shot at passing sweeping new laws. Accordingly, Democrats wouldn’t be able to issue subpoenas or block Trump nominees — potentially giving the GOP an opportunity to tip the Supreme Court further in their favor. The stakes for Trump personally could also be quite high, since if the GOP holds Congress, he’d remain in a strong position to survive the Russia probe and squelch other investigations.
The midterms are still nine months away. But Trump’s dismal approval rating, the historical tendency for a midterm backlash against the president’s party, and the trend of Democratic overperformance in 2017 all suggest that Republicans are in a tough spot.
3) The Mueller investigation appears to be heating up
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 campaign has already borne fruit. Trump’s first national security adviser and another campaign foreign policy adviser have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russians — and begun cooperating with Mueller’s probe. Trump’s campaign manager and another campaign staffer have also been indicted for crimes unrelated to the campaign.
Meanwhile, the president himself is under increasing scrutiny about whether his attempts to interfere with law enforcement agencies amount to obstruction of justice. Mueller’s team is in discussions with Trump’s lawyers about a high-stakes sit-down in the coming weeks, at which Trump would be at risk of perjuring himself. We don’t yet know where the Mueller investigation is heading next, but unless it wraps up surprisingly early, it’s set to loom over Trump’s second year in office.
What’s working in Trump’s favor
1) The economy is doing all right (or at least, that’s the perception)
Trump has been bragging ceaselessly about the performance of the economy and will doubtless continue to do so during his speech tonight. Taking personal credit for how things are going is definitely a stretch. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explained, on most metrics, the economic trends are only marginally different from when Trump claimed the economy was dismal on the campaign trail in 2016. Only on the stock market have we seen impressive performance.
But though problems certainly remain, overall the economy appears to be in decent shape. Perhaps most importantly for Trump, the public currently believes it’s in decent shape. (Mainly because since Trump’s victory, Republicans suddenly flipped to praising the economy, while the Democratic trend in the other direction hasn’t been as large.)
This may not prove to be sufficient to shield Republicans from an anti-Trump wave in this year’s elections, but it’s certainly better for them than a struggling economy would be.
2) He passed his tax cut, and he’s confirmed judges
Trump struggled to get much done in his first few months in office, but as his first year went on, he began to rack up significant accomplishments.
On the legislative front, in December, Republicans united to pass a massive permanent corporate tax cut, with temporary cuts for individuals. (The bill also repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate.) It’s not all roses for Trump — the bill didn’t poll well, and it poses an awkward contrast with his populist rhetoric from the campaign trail. Still, after the GOP’s embarrassing failure to repeal Obamacare, Trump thought he badly needed a legislative win, and he got one.
Trump and Senate Republicans have also been reshaping the courts, confirming a slate of staunch conservatives to lifetime posts. They appointed Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court seat of Antonin Scalia early last year, and since then set a record for circuit court confirmations in a president’s first year. His appointees will be reshaping American law long after his presidency ends.
3) Republicans haven’t abandoned him
Trump was an outsider presidential candidate, enormously controversial for a host of reasons. During the campaign and even early in his presidency, he was commonly barraged with criticism from high-profile Republicans.
But that’s quieted down of late. Some of Trump’s most vocal Republican critics — Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) — saw their political support collapse after they sparred publicly with the president, and decided to retire. Others, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have sounded far more positive about him recently.
As for Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, they’ve for the most part gotten Trump to adopt their policy agenda, and have muted their own criticisms of him as part of the bargain. Trump’s racist comments, his mixing his own business with politics, and his politicization of law enforcement agencies apparently seem, to them, to be a small price to pay.
In the end, most Republicans seem to have realized that their own electoral fortunes are linked to Trump’s. If his popularity sinks and he’s discredited by scandal, the GOP will pay a price at the ballot box well before he does.
4) There are signs that law enforcement agencies are starting to bend to Trump’s will
Throughout most of Trump’s first year in office, his efforts to bend the law enforcement agencies of the United States to his will seemed to fail — seemingly demonstrating the resilience of American institutions against a president with authoritarian instincts.
When he fired FBI Director James Comey, Trump only ended up with special counsel Robert Mueller. His repeated public demands for the FBI and Justice Department to investigate his political opponents seemed to fall on deaf ears.
But one major big question in the coming year is whether Trump will succeed in demolishing the norm of Justice Department independence and in contorting the rule of law to better advance his own political interests. Some recent signs on that front have been troubling.
In recent weeks, we learned both that the Justice Department was reexamining the Hillary Clinton email case, and that the FBI had revived a dormant investigation into the Clinton Foundation. The Trump administration installed its own appointees to several important US attorney posts without getting the Senate’s approval. And it recently ousted or sidelined several career officials in the FBI or DOJ whom Trump dislikes — including Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
All the while, Trump, congressional Republicans, and Fox News have been promoting a counternarrative in which the real scandal is misconduct from the FBI in its investigations of Trump associates. All this would seem to provide a helpful pretext for firing Mueller or his boss Rod Rosenstein, or even just politically discrediting whatever Mueller does eventually come up with. Overall, then, the future of the investigation — and of Trump’s presidency — looks anything but clear.