President Donald Trump was visibly elated on Wednesday as Mueller’s testimony in back-to-back hearings unfolded on national television | Alex Brandon/AP Photo
In a 72-hour stretch this week, President Donald Trump went a long way toward putting two looming threats to his bid to retain power to rest.
The first, impeachment, took a blow on Wednesday when former Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered muted and sometimes shaky testimony before two House panels — and failed to serve up the sort of compelling new red meat that might sway Democrats who have been reluctant to launch an impeachment inquiry.Story Continued Below
The president also threw his weight behind the budget deal negotiated by his Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, heading off another government shutdown that could do him political damage, and swore in a new secretary of defense, ending the longest vacancy atop the Defense Department in U.S. history. Late Thursday afternoon, the House passed the bill by an overwhelming margin.
“Landing a budget deal, watching the Democrats’ self-imposed implosion on national TV, and filling the defense secretary slot would in anyone’s mind constitute a pretty good week,” said the Republican strategist Chris LaCivita.
Trump also had his hand-picked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, confirmed by the Senate. The upper chamber is on the verge of ushering through Kelly Craft, who he tapped to be U.N. ambassador in February. And Trump pal Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May as prime minister of the United Kingdom, to boot.
The spate of good news for the president may be short-lived, of course. North Korea fired two missiles Wednesday evening that the South Korean government quickly described as a new type of short-range missile. The U.S. government has yet to offer an official response.
Democrats haven’t yet thrown in the towel on their various efforts to investigate his administration and subpoena top officials, either — and a number of court cases are pending that could rain on the president’s parade.
And with the president slated to travel to Cincinnati next week for a rally, the latest major poll of Ohio voters shows him trailing putative rival Joe Biden there by 8 percentage points — in a state he won in 2016 by nearly 9.
Still, in a short span this week Trump helped to minimize some of the obstacles to his re-election, and the shift in his mood was evident.
He was visibly elated on Wednesday as Mueller’s testimony in back-to-back hearings unfolded on national television, according to two people who spoke with him, telling aides and allies he believed it would quash momentum in the Democratic party for an impeachment inquiry.
He spent Wednesday evening traveling to and from a fundraiser in Wheeling, W.Va., where he was monitoring analysis of the hearings from Air Force One. He thanked the Trump-supporting hosts and guests at the Fox News channel, from Tucker Carlson to Sean Hannity to the talk radio host Chris Plante, blasting out video clips of them celebrating the Democrats’ perceived failure on Twitter. He plans a victory lap on Hannity’s show on Thursday evening, where he’s scheduled to do a phone interview with the decidedly friendly Fox host.
The thank yous, as if being doled out to acknowledge key supporters after an election victory, continued to stream from his Twitter feed late into the evening. “Appreciate it @LindseyGrahamSC, thank you!” an ebullient Trump wrote after Graham, the South Carolina Republican, told Hannity that Mueller’s seeming unfamiliarity with the report was a clear indication he didn’t write it. “This clearly wasn’t the Mueller report, it’s just a name. I had more to do with the Mueller report than he did.”
The president also put his stamp of approval on the budget deal negotiated by Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that raises the debt ceiling and sets spending levels until after the 2020 election.
The president’s support for the deal had been something of an open question, with many of his advisers worrying aloud that conservative critics on Fox News or talk radio would turn him against it. But the president put those worries to rest on Thursday, urging Republican lawmakers — many of whom are not inclined to back the agreement — to get on board. “House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!” the president tweeted on Thursday.
The president faces resistance on the budget deal from some of the Republicans who served as his staunchest defenders against Mueller, including Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who are complaining it does little to curb discretionary spending.
“At a time when all of these things seem to be going our way, we’re enjoying a relative peace in the world and in our country. And yet we’ve got record-breaking deficits. And this budget and debt ceiling deal would expand that path,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on the Senate floor on Thursday. “If we can’t control spending now when the economy is performing about as well as it possibly can, then when can we?”
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Jim DeMint, the former Heritage Foundation president and Tea Party leader, derided the agreement as a “disaster waiting to happen.”
“Every time you make a deal you give everyone everything they want and continue to blow the budget up. Obviously I’m sick and tired of it,” DeMint told POLITICO.
But the Republican opposition is unlikely to torpedo the bill in the Senate, which has Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s enthusiastic support.
And the budget deal may be good election politics for the president. Many Republicans blamed the 2013 government shutdown, led by conservative Republicans, for election losses in Virginia that year and in the 2014 midterms when Democratic Mark Warner beat Ed Gillespie, the longtime Republican operative, by less than one percentage point.
Trump’s decision to embrace a budget that does nothing to curb spending and is generating heat from some of his allies is a signal that he likewise sees last winter’s shutdown as a political loser, and wants to protect the economy from any potential disruptions heading into next year’s election.
He even plugged the deal on Thursday at the swearing-in ceremony for his new secretary of defense, focusing the crowd’s attention on the amount devoted to defense spending.
“We had a budget approved when I first came in. Billions and billions of dollars more than it was previously, in the previous administration: $700 billion. Then I went to $716 billion. And I won’t even tell you what this one is,” he said. “I can only tell you it’s even more. Because we have rebuilt things that nobody ever even thought of rebuilding. We’ve added the greatest planes in the world, the greatest missiles in the world.”
Esper’s confirmation and swearing-in this week put an end to one of the rockiest chapters in the recent history of the department. The resignation of James Mattis late last year gave way to the resignation of Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan in the wake of news reports about family violence — before Esper was finally nominated last month. The lack of a permanent leader at the Pentagon had irked Republican senators, who openly criticized the president’s lack of urgency at a time of tensions with Iran and a burgeoning confrontation with China.
At the swearing-in ceremony, the president made light of those troubles, and other times he has had difficulty winning bipartisan support — let alone the backing of his own party — for many of his nominees.
Referring to Tuesday’s Senate vote, Trump said to Esper, “You got 90, right? Can you believe this? Ninety to eight, right? I don’t know, I haven’t heard that sound in a long time, Mark. Now I’m worried.”
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