News Analysis: Trump Confronts the Prospect of a ‘Nonstop Political War’ for Survival

News Analysis

Trump Confronts the Prospect of a ‘Nonstop Political War’ for Survival

President Trump at the Rio Grande, near McAllen, Tex., on Thursday.CreditCreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — So it has come to this: The president of the United States was asked over the weekend whether he is a Russian agent. And he refused to directly answer.

The question, which came from a friendly interviewer, not one of the “fake media” journalists he disparages, was “the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” he declared. But it is a question that has hung over his presidency now for two years.

If the now 23-day government shutdown standoff between Mr. Trump and Congress has seemed ugly, it may eventually seem tame by comparison with what is to come. The border wall fight is just the preliminary skirmish in this new era of divided government. The real battle has yet to begin.

With Democrats now in charge of the House, the special counsel believed to be wrapping up his investigation, news media outlets competing for scoops and the first articles of impeachment already filed, Mr. Trump faces the prospect of an all-out political war for survival that may make the still-unresolved partial government shutdown pale by comparison.

The last few days have offered plenty of foreshadowing. The newly empowered Democrats summoned the president’s longtime personal lawyer to testify after he implicated Mr. Trump in an illegal scheme to arrange hush payments before the 2016 election for women who claimed to have had affairs with him. Legal papers disclosed that Mr. Trump’s onetime campaign chairman shared polling data with an associate tied by prosecutors to Russian intelligence.

New reports over the weekend added to the sense of siege at the White House. The New York Times reported that after Mr. Trump fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, in 2017, the bureau opened an investigation into whether the president was working for the Russians. And The Washington Post reported that Mr. Trump has gone out of his way as president to hide the details of his discussions with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia even from members of his own administration.

What all this adds up to remains unclear. Whether it will actually lead to a full-blown impeachment inquiry in the House has yet to be decided. But it underscores the chance that with candidates already lining up to take him on in 2020, Washington will spend the months to come debating the future of Mr. Trump’s presidency and the direction of the country.

“The reality,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former special assistant to Mr. Trump, is “that the next two years are going to be nonstop political war.”

The White House has begun recruiting soldiers. The new White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, has hired 17 new lawyers, according to The Post, as he prepares for a barrage of subpoenas from House Democratic committee chairmen.

But Mr. Trump’s inner circle has shrunk, and he has fewer advisers around him whom he trusts. His White House chief of staff is still serving in an acting capacity, and the West Wing is depleted by the shutdown. As he himself wrote on Twitter this weekend, “There’s almost nobody in the W.H. but me.”

Mr. Surabian said the rest of the party must recognize the threat and rally behind the president. “Republicans need to understand that Democrats in Congress, beholden to the ‘resistance,’ aren’t interested in bipartisanship, they’re out for blood,” he said. “It’s a war we can win,” he added, “but only with fortitude, unity, coherent messaging and a willingness to fight back.”

Democrats, for their part, insist they are out for accountability, not blood, intent on forcing a president who went largely unchecked by a Republican Congress during his first two years in office to come clean on the many scandals that have erupted involving his business, taxes, campaign and administration.

They plan to get started in the coming days. On Tuesday, they will grill former Attorney General William P. Barr, who has been nominated by Mr. Trump to assume his old office again, about his approach to the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Barr wrote a private memo last year criticizing Mr. Mueller’s investigation, and Democrats will use his confirmation hearings to press him on whether the special counsel will be allowed to finish his work and report it to Congress.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, also plans to force a vote in the Senate this week on the Trump administration’s plans to lifts sanctions on the companies of Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Mr. Putin’s government, if he reduces his ownership stakes. Democrats plan to use the issue to argue that Mr. Trump has been soft on Russia.

Even committees that are not usually in the investigation business are jumping into the fray. Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The New Yorker last week that he was eliminating the subcommittee on terrorism in favor of a subcommittee aimed at investigating Mr. Trump’s foreign policy.

Lost in all this may be any chance of bipartisan policymaking. At stake in the current fight is just $ 5.7 billion for Mr. Trump’s promised border wall, roughly one-eighth of one percent of the total federal budget. If one-eighth of one percent of the total budget can prompt the longest government shutdown in American history, then the potential for further clashes over the remaining 99.87 percent seems considerable. On issues like health care, taxes, climate change, guns and national security, the two sides start this era of divided government far apart.

“That’s the flashing yellow light here,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, a former top White House aide to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “If you can’t do Government 101, what makes you think you’re going to do Advanced Placement Government like finding the money for an infrastructure bill?”

Julian Epstein, who was the counsel for Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee during Mr. Clinton’s impeachment fight 20 years ago, said big issues like a shrinking middle class largely untrained for the 21st-century economy would go unaddressed during the battles to come.

“The political class is now addicted to Manichaean conflict as a way of life,” Mr. Epstein said. “It’s become the mother’s milk — for base voters in both parties who together make up a minority share of voters, for cable television and for social media.”

Given the investigations, Mr. Trump may prefer a battle over the border wall as more favorable ground to fight even with 800,000 federal workers furloughed or forced to work without pay. Polls suggest he is not winning with the broader public but has rallied his base behind him in the fight.

More Americans blame Mr. Trump for the government shutdown than blame Democrats, and most oppose a border wall, according to a new survey by The Post and ABC News. But support for a wall has grown over the last year, from 34 percent to 42 percent, while opposition has slipped from 63 percent to 54 percent.

At this point, negotiations have broken down. While Mr. Trump had gambled that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, would back down, she has made clear that she has no interest in compromise, and left town over the weekend. She and Mr. Schumer have insisted that Mr. Trump reopen the government while negotiations over a border wall proceed, which the president has refused to do. Mr. Trump walked out of their talks last week after he asked Ms. Pelosi if she would support his wall if he reopened government and she said no.

“It’s all about their own sense of strength,” said John Feehery, a former senior House Republican aide. “Pelosi wants to be validated. She wants to be seen as a strong leader. Trump feels like he has to govern through strength. This is strength versus strength. Unfortunately, the people in the middle are the government workers who can’t afford to lose a paycheck.”

Instead of talks to end the shutdown, the president spent at least part of his weekend defending himself against the suspicions about his affinity for Mr. Putin. He insisted that he has actually been tougher on Russia than his predecessors and that the F.B.I. was led by “losers that tried to do a number on your President.”

He picked up the telephone on Saturday night to call into the Fox News show hosted by Jeanine Pirro, who participated in a campaign rally with him last fall. She asked him about the F.B.I. investigation reported by The Times with a tone of scorn.

“I’m going to ask you, are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?” Ms. Pirro asked.

“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” he answered. “I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written. And if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing.”

She then cited the Post article about his efforts to conceal details of his private meetings with Mr. Putin. “We had a great conversation,” he said. “We were talking about Israel and securing Israel and lots of other things, and it was a great conversation. I’m not keeping anything under wraps. I couldn’t care less.”

Ms. Pirro expressed sympathy for the battles he was waging.

“You’ve got such fight in you, it’s unbelievable,” she said.

“Well,” he answered, “I guess I have good genes.”

Follow Peter Baker on Twitter: @peterbakernyt


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