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Facing new political reality, Trump talks compromise but readies for combat

Why We Wrote This

Can a leader offer compromise with one hand while keeping the other clenched in a fist? As a combative President Trump faced the press Wednesday, his message to congressional Democrats was mixed.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Trump takes questions at the White House during a news conference Nov. 7 following Tuesday’s midterm elections that gave Democrats control of the House and strengthened the Republican majority in the Senate.

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The divided outcome in Tuesday’s midterms – Democrats capturing the House and Republicans expanding their Senate majority – perfectly captured the nation’s divisions. Urban areas are Democratic, rural states and regions Republican, and suburbs evenly split. “This was a realignment election, not a wave,” says former Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia. Indeed, President Trump and members of Congress face a choice. They can address the new reality with an eye toward solving problems and show voters they know how to govern. Crumbling infrastructure is Exhibit A. Or they can go straight into posturing for the 2020 election. Mr. Trump’s explosive press conference Wednesday, in which all decorum vanished between the president and certain reporters, showed his combative side even as he insisted he could deploy a softer tone. And in a move that was long expected, Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at Trump’s request. Democrats, no longer nearly powerless in Washington, are revving their engines and ready to check the president. But Ari Fleischer, press secretary in the second Bush White House, sees another path to common ground: immigration. “Trump can decide what he wants to do,” says Mr. Fleischer. “Is he the dealmaker or not?”

The divided outcome in Tuesday’s midterms – Democrats capturing the House and Republicans expanding their Senate majority – perfectly captured the nation’s divisions. Urban areas are Democratic, rural states and regions are Republican, suburbs are evenly split.

“This was a realignment election, not a wave,” says former Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia. “I got a little nervous on Election Day sitting outside my polling place in [suburban] Fairfax.” The voters, he says, came in “really angry,” but he realized that wasn’t the case everywhere.

Indeed, President Trump, Capitol Hill legislators of both parties, and the American people face a choice. They can address the new political reality with an eye toward solving problems, and the politicians can show voters they know how to govern. Crumbling infrastructure is Exhibit A.

Or they can go straight into posturing for the 2020 election. Mr. Trump’s explosive press conference Wednesday, in which all decorum vanished between the president and certain reporters, showed how prepared he was for combat (as were the reporters) even as he insisted he could deploy a softer tone.

“I would love to see unity and peace and love, if they would cover me fairly, which they don’t,” Trump said at the press conference in the East Room of the White House. “I’m not saying that in a hostile way. I get extremely inaccurate coverage.”

Trump’s ongoing conflicts with the media aside, it’s a new day in Washington. By Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had resigned, at the president’s request, amid Trump’s longstanding frustration over Mr. Sessions’ recusal from the Justice Department investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Sessions’ chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, was named acting attorney general, and will assume decision-making authority over the Russia investigation.

Meanwhile, votes were still being counted. At press time, the Democrats had achieved a net gain of 27 seats in the House, above the 23 needed to secure a majority. And in a rare but not-unheard-of outcome, the partisan balance in the other chamber moved in the opposite direction, with Republicans gaining Senate seats (a net gain of two so far, with some races still undecided).

While newly empowered Democratic House leaders promised to work collaboratively with Trump and his administration, deeper questions remain about just how feasible that is. Many in the Democrats’ rank and file are revving their engines and ready to check the president once they take control of the House in January. Investigations, subpoenas, and impeachment are on the table.

Trump, at the press conference, struck an initially conciliatory tone toward Democrats, saying both parties should put their differences aside and work together. But then, he warned, that would all end if the Democrats start to investigate him and his administration – and nothing would get done.

For Trump, still new to governing, the next two-year phase of his presidency brings a test of his ability to adapt. Last Friday, at a campaign rally in West Virginia, he contemplated the possible GOP loss of the House, and said he wasn’t worried, he’d “figure it out.”

Republican analysts agree that Trump has gotten to the pinnacle of political power based on native ability, and are confident he will find his way.

“He’s all gut and instinct, which has served him well,” says Ari Fleischer, former press secretary in the second Bush White House.

Trump has also rebranded the Republican Party, in some ways dramatically, says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“The traditional Republican Party is gone, and Trumpism is ‘America first’ nativism and border control amid concern about the ‘other,’ ” says Professor Jillson.

Mr. Fleischer sees the new dynamic as not right vs. left, but of “outsider vs. left.”

“The Republican Party has dramatically shifted to an outsider point of view, and I think that’s likely going to continue,” he says, noting the retirement and defeat of GOP members oriented toward bipartisanship. “[Outsiders] don’t like Washington, they don’t trust Washington, and they reward politicians who are the most anti-Washington.”

Looking ahead to partisan relations on Capitol Hill come January, Mr. Davis, the former Virginia congressman, sees a “threshold issue” for Democrats: the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between Russia and Trump associates in the 2016 campaign.

“How do Democrats deal with the Mueller report?” Davis asks. “That goes right to their base.”

Exit polling showed that three-quarters of Democratic voters Tuesday want Trump impeached, versus 41 percent of voters overall.

Democrats who support impeachment have handed their party control of the House, and so “there is some expectation among the party’s base that something will happen other than just putting a check on Trump,” says Davis.

He also notes that wealthy party activists like Tom Steyer, talk radio, and cable TV will be “whipping this thing up,” and saying, “We elected you guys, what are you doing?”

“They think there’s enough to impeach him now,” Davis says. “This is going to add gasoline on the fire. If they do that, what does it do to relationships?”

For her part, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to reclaim the speakership, has spoken of a reintroduction of checks and balances and not of pursuing impeachment.

But even short of an impeachment effort, Trump can use the inevitable clashes and pushback from House Democrats to his advantage, says Susan MacManus, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

So it’s possible that Trump “wins for losing” the House, she says, as the majority Democrats give him a foil to run against in 2020.

Fleischer sees another potential path for Trump and the bipartisan leaders in the House and Senate: to find common ground on immigration. Democrats want to protect those who have been in the country illegally for a long time, especially “dreamers.” Republicans want border security, including a wall along the United States-Mexico border.

“Trump can decide what he wants to do,” says Mr. Fleischer. “Is he the dealmaker or not?”

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