National politics were intense in 2018, from the midterm election, to murder in an embassy, to state funerals. It has left Donald Trump at the low end of his narrow range of public approval, blamed for a record-breaking shutdown, running a government of “acting” officers and looking at impeachment. The highlights of events of 2018, which feature his weaknesses and vulnerabilities, have left him with diminished re-election prospects.
Shutdown and Pelosi. President Trump and Republicans lost the U.S. House of Representatives on November 6th by 8 percentage points, translating into 40 seats. Nancy Pelosi and her committee chairpersons will now be in charge of oversight of the Trump administration. After two years of Republicans heading both chambers of Congress, House Democrats are now poised to scrutinize and criticize the administration’s and Trump’s performance, actions and rhetoric. The shutdown victory for Pelosi and the “no wall” House Democrats demonstrated the new environment to the legislatively-inept White House.
Dow and Powell. Trump believes he’s been responsible for the stock market’s success over the last two years. Since the market has started to drop, he’s shifted the responsibility to the Chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, and to the Democrats’ win in November. Actually, there are a myriad of issues weighing on investors’ decisions, including a world growth slowdown, central banks tightening, and trade and tariff troubles. The constant chaos in D.C. is not helpful. Although January was a good month for the Dow, if the U.S. falls into a recession in late 2019 or 2020, the President’s re-election becomes even less likely.
Cohen and Mueller. In 2018, Michael Cohen provided considerable bad press for President Trump. It won’t end. Now, the House can request his testimony, creating additional platforms and rounds of media coverage. The latest Roger Stone theater performance only adds to media scrutiny of the investigation. The Mueller report is expected in early 2019. It’s not clear what impact it will have on Trump, but with a Democratic House, it will be more significant and accessible than before.
Kim and Putin. Trump’s meetings with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were highs and lows of his 2018 diplomatic initiatives. He declared a major success with Kim, but he has little to show for it except for less bluster from Kim. His own intelligence agencies disagree with his upbeat assessment. Putin’s aggressiveness in Eastern Europe, the Black Sea and Middle East is unabated. Trump’s anti-alliance attitude and unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops in combat zones has caused considerable consternation in Washington and abroad.
Health Care and Guns. The top issues for Democrat candidates in the House midterm elections were health care and guns. The inability of House Republicans to offer their incumbents a scintilla of legislative support after the high-profile loss of the Affordable Care Act repeal in the Senate and myriad of school shootings undermined many of their swing and suburban candidates and contributed to their loss. House Democrats are taking up both issues to get recorded votes on their proposals for use in 2020 campaigns.
Moonves and Cosby. The #MeToo movement continues to roil industries, with Hollywood and New York media titans proving most vulnerable. Les Moonves, one of network television’s dominant figures, was quickly brought down with a personal cost of $120 million in lost severance. Bill Cosby, after lengthy trial and appeal efforts, is locked up. Politicians have also been taken down. The movement drew record numbers of women to run for office and continues to motivate marches and candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Khashoggi and Media. The death of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul was the highest profile loss in a year of mayhem and repression of reporters. For more than two years, the U.S. President, joined by dozens of authoritarian leaders, has been contributing to a hostile environment, repeating the “fake news” criticism. But, following the Khashoggi murder, media organizations, friends and supporters, including the U.S. Senate, fought back.
Mattis and Syria. The sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria by President Trump and equally surprising resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis in protest pushed the entire Mideast policy into chaos. Russia, Turkey and Iran appear the winners in Syria. This year started with Secretary of State Pompeo conducting a “confusion reduction” tour of Middle East capitals, attempting to explain the consistency and wisdom of U.S. policy. Trump wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan quickly. If terrorists emerge from the wreckage of those two countries, Trump will be blamed, just as President Obama was when ISIS emerged after the Iraq withdrawal.
Wall and Kelly. The proposed border wall was the focal point for a midterm election story as President Trump decided to make a crisis on the southern border and caravans of immigrants coming through Mexico his final argument. After a near settlement of wall funding in December, Trump shifted positions and ratcheted up the rhetoric, leading to a record-breaking federal government shutdown. After a tumultuous year, John Kelly resigned as Trump’s Chief of Staff with little thanks during a week when no one noticed. Managing the wall dispute was one of his many near impossible tasks. His replacement became another member of Trump’s rapidly growing “acting” cabinet and staff. The duration and stress of the shutdown and failure to secure the wall may become one of Trump’s most serious failures.
Although 2019 should provide a pause between national elections, it has started in a frenzy and is unlikely to let up. The 2018 turmoil in national politics produced a troubled backdrop for the beginning of the pre-2020 year of the Trump administration.