The Washington nightmare before Christmas: a government in chaos

President Donald Trump is precipitating chaos and seeking to wield unrestrained power as America enters a ho...

Posted: Dec 24, 2018 7:49 AM
Updated: Dec 24, 2018 7:49 AM

President Donald Trump is precipitating chaos and seeking to wield unrestrained power as America enters a holiday period overshadowed by political pandemonium orchestrated by the disruptor-in-chief.

For the third time this year, Congress is paralyzed, unable to prevent a shutdown that sent thousands of federal employees home for Christmas unsure about their upcoming paychecks.

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Trump is polling advisers on whether he has the power to fire Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell following sell-offs on Wall Street that have taken away one of his favorite measures of his own job performance -- soaring stock markets.

The revelation came days after the President announced a snap withdrawal of US troops in Syria against the advice of his advisers and without consulting allies. The move provoked the resignations of his most admired Cabinet officer, Defense Secretary James Mattis, who penned a devastating critique of Trump's "America First" world view, and a day later, of Trump's special envoy in the ISIS fight, Brett McGurk.

A surprise announcement that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery for cancerous growths on her lung added to the frenetic mood in Washington, as the Supreme Court dealt a blow to Trump by knocking back his new restrictions on asylum seekers who cross the southern border.

The sense of things slipping out of control on multiple fronts left the political world more unsettled and on edge than at any other time in Trump's tumultuous presidency.

Even Republicans who have rarely dared to the cross the President fumed that Trump appeared to navigate himself into a no-win situation with the government shutdown, and border wall funding prospects that will only worsen once Democrats take control of the House in a couple of weeks.

"We are pretty much flying here without an instruction book," said Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.

Trump, who bowed to a right-wing revolt and forced the fight by digging in on a dispute over funding for his border wall, addressed the crisis by tweeting a picture of himself signing already-passed bills -- a number of which concerned the naming of post offices -- while also complaining that he was staying in Washington instead of heading out on his 16-day Florida golf vacation as planned.

That was after one senator, Democrat Brian Schatz from Hawaii, flew all the way home to have what he tweeted was a "17 minute visit" with his family before hopping back on a plane to rejoin the Senate's latest round of brinksmanship.

"Wheels down IAD ready to vote no on this stupid wall," he tweeted when he got back.

At midnight on Friday, the government slipped into a partial shutdown after Congress declined to bow to Trump's demands for $5 billion in taxpayer cash for a border wall that he repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for. While negotiations are expected to continue, the Senate adjourned Saturday afternoon, likely assuring the partial government shutdown would continue until at least Thursday, when the Senate is scheduled to reconvene.

"OUR GREAT COUNTRY MUST HAVE BORDER SECURITY!" Trump tweeted on Friday night along with a video in which he demanded a "great barrier" to stop what he said were gangs and criminals pouring across the border

A White House official told CNN's Pamela Brown that while staffers are used to chaos, this time around "it feels different."

'Craziness' going on

Shock and dread hung over the four-mile power corridor between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill over the sensational resignation of Mattis, long seen as a crucial restraint on an erratic commander in chief.

Trump was reported to be "angry" about the resignation letter. But the President's plans to pull troops from Syria and Afghanistan that pushed Mattis to quit were still reverberating around the world, with Turkish officials threatening retaliation against the Kurds, according to The Washington Post.

In another example of Trump's apparent desire to flex executive power, Trump is asking advisers whether he has the legal authority to fire Powell. Two people familiar with the matter described the President as furious at the Fed chief following the latest interest rate hike at a time when markets are tumbling. So far the White House has not made a final legal determination on the matter.

The story, first reported by Bloomberg, came after CNN revealed that Trump is also furious with his acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker after federal prosecutors referenced the President's actions in crimes to which his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

Amid the uproar, it went almost unnoticed that Whitaker decided to ignore a recommendation from senior Justice Department ethics officials to recuse himself from the Russia probe -- a revelation that comes after prosecutors in New York indicated Trump directed Cohen to make illicit hush money payments before the 2016 election, and as Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn is still awaiting sentencing from a judge who told Flynn he "arguably sold your country out" through his dealings with foreign powers.

Whitaker may have been unwilling to risk the President's wrath after watching his former boss Jeff Sessions get relentlessly attacked and finally fired over his recusal in the probe. But Whitaker's decision will exacerbate fears about the exposure of special counsel Robert Mueller to presidential interference.

Trump's case of humbug can hardly have been helped when the Supreme Court upheld a ban on his new asylum restrictions — with one of his recent Twitter targets, Chief Justice John Roberts, siding with the court's liberal wing to cast the deciding vote. Trump later tweeted well wishes to Ginsburg for "a full and speedy recovery."

A grim run on Wall Street is deepening a feeling of vulnerability this holiday season.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slumped another 400 plus points, to enshrine its worst weekly plunge since the crisis year of 2008, while the Nasdaq retreated into a bear market in the worst December for stocks since the Great Depression.

The White House official who was in contact with CNN's Brown said that with the impending departures of both Chief of Staff John Kelly and Mattis, there is a feeling that the guardrails are coming off. The official says "of course it's crazy. Anyone looking at this has got to think there's some craziness going on."

The source also said there is uncertainty among staffers about what Mick Mulvaney will do as chief of staff, adding that a lot of people inside the West Wing are looking at what has happened the last 48 hours and wondering if that is indicative of what else is to come.

The source added there's a sense that the President is not listening as much to certain advisers as much as he once did, including Kelly and Mattis. There have been several recent examples of the President making a decision only to change his mind after receiving outside influence.

One case in point: his shift over the short-term funding bill following pressure from outside conservatives like Ann Coulter.

'Blindsiding the swamp'

While everything seemed tenuous in Washington, it's not clear that an almost tangible sense of foreboding was shared across the nation.

After all, nearly half the country voted for this. Trump's political base elected him to send the political establishment reeling and to unpick the alliance systems and international commitments that have underpinned US leadership of the Western world for Trump's entire life.

The President has anchored his White House on the unshakable support of his most loyal supporters, never bothering to reach out to other Americans to build a wider coalition.

Had he been keen to broaden his support ahead of his 2020 election race, Trump might have spent the last week trading his border wall fight for a prolonged victory lap for a first step towards a criminal justice overhaul. A more normal White House would have made sure not to step on what was a significant political win.

The President signed the rare bipartisan bill on Friday in an Oval Office tableau surrounded by members of Congress who congratulated him at length for getting something done. But his celebration was quickly overshadowed by all the other raging storylines, not least his own decision to return to his demands funding for a border wall. As the government headed into a shutdown Friday, Trump tweeted designs for a border barrier made up of steel slats which he said was "totally effective while at the same time beautiful!"

Earlier in the week, it seemed that Trump would agree to a spending bill to keep the government fully open into next year without wall funding.

But stung by a backlash by House conservatives and conservative pundits who accused him of caving in his last best chance to build the wall given the incoming House Democratic majority, he abruptly changed course.

"People are expecting, Americans are expecting, that a Republican President, along with his Republican House and Senate will have an end game," said Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

But Trump's cheerleaders in conservative media were delighted by his disruptive tactics.

"Donald Trump blindsided the swamp yesterday," said Rush Limbaugh in his show-opening monologue on Friday.

Late in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared in the chamber to announce that there would be renewed efforts to forge a deal between Democrats and Republicans, the House and the Senate and the White House to avert a government shutdown. He wore on his lapel a badge featuring a reindeer and the slogan "Senate cranky coalition."

Even the deadpan Kentuckian couldn't resist a chuckle when he uttered the words that formally put the Senate in limbo so negotiations could take place.

"I move to concur in the House amendment to the Senate amendment to the House amendment to the Senate amendment to H.R. 695."

The impenetrable congressional jargon only added to perceptions of that a Washington farce is unfolding this Christmas.

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