1. McConnell’s remaking of the judiciary in the GOP’s image
While the House was impeaching President Trump on Wednesday, something arguably even more significant was happening on the other side of the Capitol: The Senate was confirming 13 judges. After gumming up the confirmation of judges for most of Barack Obama’s presidency — and eventually ignoring Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has used the first three years of Trump’s presidency to remake the U.S. judiciary in the GOP’s image.
As of today, Trump, McConnell and their GOP Senate majority have teamed to appoint more than 1 out of every 4 federal appeals court judges, to go along with their 2 out of 9 Supreme Court justices. As The Post’s Colby Itkowitz reports, Trump has appointed 50 circuit court judges so far, vs. 25 for the same stretch of Obama’s presidency. Trump has already appointed almost as many as Obama did in his entire eight years (55).
So not only is the Supreme Court now tilting toward the GOP, but that’s also the case at the appellate level. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Trump appointees have tilted 3 of the 13 federal appellate courts from having a majority of Democratic-appointed judges to having mostly GOP-appointed judges. They now have a majority in 7 out of those 13 courts, which are the final word on all but the small number of cases that reach the Supreme Court.
Oh, and half the appellate judges are younger than 50, meaning they’ll be around for a long time. Oh, and they’ve also installed 133 district court judges.
There was a time when you didn’t talk about appointing judges as if it were political exercise, but McConnell has been more than happy to pat himself — and Trump — on the back. “Nobody’s done more to change the court system in the history of our country than Donald Trump,” McConnell said. McConnell, though, set the table with his Obama blockade. And, given how much the judiciary has supplanted the legislative branch as the place where policy is decided, if Democrats don’t retake the presidency or the Senate in 2020, they could be in for very tough years ahead.
2. The survival of the Virginia Three, and the Al Franken reclamation project
Virginia has three statewide elected state officials. All of them are Democrats. And all of them in early 2019 found themselves in seriously hot water: two of them over blackface scandals dating back decades, Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring; and one of them over sexual assault allegations, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Today not only have all of them been able to avoid pressure to resign, but also their party took full control of the state legislature last month. Northam is a popular governor, with 52 percent approving of him and 36 percent disapproving, according to a recent poll.
In the meantime, Canada’s Justin Trudeau was reelected as prime minister despite his own newly revealed history with blackface. And American Democrats including more than half a dozen senators expressed remorse over their 2017 excommunication of now-former senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) over allegations against him of unwanted touching and kissing.
In short, things that once seemed like possible instant political death blows — Franken’s downfall was just two years ago — suddenly no longer seem as if they are. Voters and lawmakers (and left-leaning ones in these cases) seem more willing to give their politicians the benefit of the doubt.
3. The increasingly overt sidelining of human rights in American foreign policy
This didn’t begin in 2019, but it certainly reached a plateau. After Trump in late 2018 shrugged off Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, 2019 brought a gruesome United Nations report that reinforced just exactly how brutal a human rights violation Trump was looking past. Trump openly conceded that he wasn’t willing to jeopardize the economic benefits that come with the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
By later in the year, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong erupted over its treatment by China. Trump, who was in the midst of a trade war with China, stayed conspicuously quiet about the whole thing for a long time, even as a bipartisan group of lawmakers pressed for action and rhetorical support. Some reports indicated Trump didn’t want to poison the well on such a big trade deal. Eventually this month, he relented and signed a bill sanctioning human rights abusers in China and Hong Kong and siding with the protesters. But he may have had little choice; the bill had veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
And finally has come the Armenian genocide issue. After Turkey’s attacks on the United States’s Kurdish allies in Syria and its increasing flirtation with Russia, Congress for the first time mustered the will to declare Turkey’s treatment of the Armenians a century ago to be “genocide.” It did so after decades and decades of refusal. But it didn’t do so before the White House repeatedly held up the process, apparently owing to Trump’s desire to maintain relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And the administration has now said the Senate’s declaration doesn’t reflect its stance.
Trump is hardly the first president to avoid calling it genocide; in fact, he’s merely the latest in a long line to take such stances. Barack Obama said during his 2008 campaign that he would call it genocide, but he never did as president. Obama was also criticized for not taking a firmer approach to China’s human rights abuses. Where Trump has taken things a step further, though, has often been with how little he has been willing to say and how transactional he has been willing to appear.
4. Hope for bipartisanship?
Another thing that happened even as Trump was being impeached last week: Congress was striking a couple of bipartisan deals. Lawmakers averted a shutdown with relatively little drama, as Congress passed a couple of spending bills with broad, bipartisan majorities. The House, meanwhile, sent a new North American free trade deal — USMCA, or the new NAFTA — on course for passage with a big, bipartisan majority.
The latter was done even as it was a major initiative of Trump’s. It got support from the likes of longtime free trade opponent Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Democrats said they obtained major concessions — rather than that they simply handed Trump a big win — but the practical impact is the same: It was a major trade deal that got done, despite the years of gridlock in Washington.
There also appeared to be at least some hope for bipartisan compromise on lowering prescription drug prices. But it ran into a snag last week, with Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) rather remarkably blaming McConnell for blocking a Senate bill he spearheaded alongside Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Trump for a time also seemed to like a bill House Democrats were pushing on a similar subject, only to back off that.
Because of my Administration, drug prices are down for the first time in almost 50 years — but the American people need Congress to help. I like Sen. Grassley’s drug pricing bill very much, and it’s great to see Speaker Pelosi’s bill today. Let’s get it done in a bipartisan way!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 19, 2019
Not to be Pollyannaish about what lies ahead, but Trump’s status as a heat-seeking missile for controversy can provide cover for lawmakers who are trying to cut such deals, and his malleability on certain types of policy could grease the skids. Many conservatives hated the shutdown deal, for instance, but their opposition didn’t really break through. This setup hasn’t produced much bipartisan legislation through Trump’s first three years — and an onslaught seems unlikely in a presidential election year — but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
5. The decline and new face of the U.S. refugee
Trump has made plenty of news with his hard-line immigration policies, but his administration’s handling of refugees might be the most underrecognized and sharpest change. In September, the Trump administration again slashed the number of refugees this country accepts on an annual basis to 18,000. That’s down from 85,000 in the final year of Obama’s presidency.
As the Pew Research Center has reported, the impact has been felt when it comes to not just the number of refugees, but also where they come from and what religion they practice. Under Trump, the United States has for the first time since at least the early 1980s taken in fewer refugees than the rest of the world — and significantly fewer.
The number coming from Africa has stayed somewhat steady, but the number coming from Latin America is down, and the number coming from Asia is way down. The number of Muslims is also way down, as Christians have taken over an overwhelming and unprecedented share.
The administration hasn’t really made a secret of this initiative, but as much as its broader immigration policy, it represents a sea change in the United States’s attitude toward welcoming newcomers.