Washington, DC is full of apprehension as big events loom. More West Wing staff changes. An omnibus spending bill. President Trump’s message to Congress explaining his steel and aluminum tariffs. A pending deadline on the Iran nuclear deal. Anticipated face-to-face talks with North Korea. Possible gun violence legislation. And new developments in the Russian meddling investigation.
Last week saw a continuation of the revolving door for the Trump team and rumors persist that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may be the next to get the boot. Ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and McMaster have urged a more cautious approach toward Iran, which runs counter to what Trump wants. The President’s personal staff remains in flux, too.
Intensive bipartisan negotiations continue on a massive spending package, which Congress tasked itself with approving by this Friday as part of brokered deal last month to prevent another federal government shutdown. There was hope pieces of the $1.3 trillion spending measure would fall into place so it could be passed in something resembling normal order. That hope appears dashed, as disagreements persist on everything from women’s health to Trump’s border wall and from campaign finance to a major transportation project in New York and New Jersey. Negotiations are tricky because many House and Senate Republicans are expected to oppose the measure as fiscally reckless, which means it will fall to Democrats to approve it, so they have bargaining power to set the terms.
Trump’s abrupt decision to impose stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Within 30 days of when the tariffs go into effect, Trump must tell Congress formally why he imposed them – and whether and how he may exempt some nations from the tariffs. Many congressional Republicans aren’t keen on the tariffs because of their unintended effects on other parts of the economy and their potential to start a global trade war. Trump’s top economic adviser quit after Trump announced the tariffs. The European Union and some steel-producing countries have threatened trade retaliation, either through tariffs or shifting large purchases, such as commercial aircraft, from US to other suppliers. The tit-for-tat could result in one or more countries, including the United States, filing unfair trade complaints with the World Trade Organization.
The Tillerson firing (the former head of Exxon-Mobile learned he was canned while on the toilet, according to press reports) and the shaky status of McMaster are likely linked to the May 12 deadline Trump faces on whether to extend the waiver on Iranian sanctions lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear arms deal. Trump said he reluctantly waived sanctions in January, but has sounded more bellicose since then toward Iran. He has sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who views the deal as weak. Trump also has aligned with Saudi Arabia in a conflict in Yemen that is effectively a proxy war between the Saudis and Iranians, which both seek greater influence in Middle East.
Trump said he wanted a secretary of state closer to his mindset as he approaches personal negotiations with North Korea.
Leader Kim Jong-un sometime this spring. Trump chose CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, but that nomination could face trouble in the Senate as two GOP senators have already said they would oppose his confirmation. There is uneasiness that Trump and his administration may not be prepared to deal with Kim, but the talks appear on the road to happening as North Korea and Sweden, which is the American shadow voice, explore ways to find a peaceful resolution.
The Parkland, Florida school shootings sparked a vigorous, student-led national push for gun violence legislation. Florida lawmakers and GOP Governor Rick Scott approved a measure over objections from the National Rifle Association. The NRA subsequently challenged the constitutionality of one provision in the bill raising the legal age to buy long weapons from 18 to 21 years old. Trump has bounced around on what he would support, including support for arming some school teachers, but there are hints of a building bipartisan consensus in Congress to strengthen background checks before gun purchases – and possibly take further steps. For his part, Trump has asked his administration to find a way to ban bump stocks, a device used in the Las Vegas massacre to turn a semi-automatic weapon into a virtual machine gun.
Despite boastful predictions by Trump and his team that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would wrap up soon, the opposite appears true. Last week’s news included subpoenas issued to the Trump Organization for documents relating to its dealings with Russian financial interests. The firing of Andrew McCabe from the FBI just before he was set to retire, which was celebrated in Trump tweets, may have added more propellant to charges of obstruction of justice. While the firing of McCabe may have been inspired as a way to discredit him as a witness against Trump, but it also removed any shackles McCabe may have felt to tell what he knows about Trump attempts to blunt the Russia meddling issue.
If that wasn’t bewildering enough, there also is the Stormy Daniels spectacle. The former porn star and her new attorney are keeping the story about a sexual encounter and hush money front and center. Trump has denied having a fling with Daniels, despite pictures of the two of them together and negotiations on Trump Organization email between his fix-it attorney and Daniels that resulted in a $130,000 hush money payment just before the 2016 election. Last week, Trump’s team baffled observers by declaring Daniels owed $20 million for violating terms of the non-disclosure agreement.
There is never a dull moment in the nation’s capital, and probably never an empty bar seat.