The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A watershed moment’: Trump faces crossroads amid mounting threats on all sides

President Trump attends a meeting Thursday in the Oval Office at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When President Trump delivers his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, a Democrat will be seated at the rostrum over his shoulder for the first time.

The presence of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will bring into fresh relief not only the power shift in the Capitol, with the opposition party now able to thwart the president’s agenda, but also the converging pressures on Trump that have brought his presidency to a crossroads.

Trump dealt himself a political defeat with the 35-day partial government shutdown. He has secured no funding to construct a border wall and is preparing to declare a national emergency to fulfill his campaign promise. He is again at odds with the nation’s intelligence chiefs and some senators in his own party. The Russia investigation, which has ensnared several of the president’s allies, appears to be nearing its conclusion. New congressional oversight investigations will start soon. And the race to defeat him at the ballot box has kicked off in earnest.

President Trump said he is considering declaring a national emergency, because he doesn't anticipate Democrats budging on his border wall. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

“This is a watershed moment,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. “Time is running out. This is a last chance to really get things right.”

The challenges mount at a moment when Trump is as unchecked and isolated as ever. Inside the White House, aides describe a chaotic, freewheeling atmosphere reminiscent of the early weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Power has consolidated around presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser who is functioning as a de facto White House chief of staff. With counterweights like ousted chief of staff John F. Kelly gone, some advisers say the West Wing has the feel of the 26th floor of Trump Tower, where an unrestrained Trump had absolute control over his family business and was free to follow his impulses.

Mick Mulvaney, who has replaced Kelly in an acting capacity, has said he is trying to manage the staff but not the president, according to administration officials. He has told friends that he shuttles in and out of the Oval Office and meets alone with Trump twice a day — once in the morning and once in the evening, for about 15 minutes each. Asked at a recent dinner whether he was acting as a gatekeeper, Mulvaney laughed and said, “I’m not trying to stop him from doing things,” according to the officials.

“I don’t think he’s even trying to mask the fact that he is operating as the head of a family-owned business instead of the head of one of the most powerful countries in the world,” said Omarosa Manigault Newman, who starred on Trump’s NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” and worked for him in the White House before having a public falling out with the president after she was fired.

Trump’s popularity, meanwhile, is at an ebb. Polls show many more Americans blame him for the shutdown than Democrats, and growing majorities disapprove of his job performance — despite Trump’s stewardship of a robust economy and his declared intentions to withdraw U.S. troops from unpopular foreign wars.

This raises the question of whether on Tuesday, Trump might use his annual address to a joint session of Congress — and to a prime-time national television audience — to make a course correction and seek to expand his appeal or to burrow in on conflicts with the opposition party, chiefly over illegal immigration and border security.

Trump said last week that his address would be about “unification,” but that theme belies the president’s combative instincts and the indifference — even hostility — he has shown toward congressional negotiations.

“He may mouth bromide of national unity, but if he points to people in the gallery and says, in effect, immigrants of color are coming to kill you, that would undermine whatever pretense,” said Michael Waldman, who as chief White House speechwriter helped pen President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address in the wake of two government shutdowns between 1995 and 1996.

“At other points, presidents facing dropping poll numbers have chosen to be very conciliatory or very optimistic,” Waldman said. “That would surprise everyone here. I don’t know that it’s in Trump’s repertoire. When he does it, it feels like he’s reading under duress from the teleprompter — and everybody knows when he gets back to the White House, he’ll start tweeting again.”

Although the fight for a border wall has been a chief focus of Trump’s for the past two months, the president’s advisers said his address would not be an immigration-centric jeremiad, but rather would set a governing agenda for the year ahead. For instance, Trump plans to talk about infrastructure development and prescription-drug pricing, two issues with broad bipartisan appeal, according to a senior White House official.

The president also is expected to talk about foreign affairs and highlight his administration’s recent moves in Venezuela to force President Nicolás Maduro from power, as well as Trump’s ongoing trade negotiations with China and his planned summit this month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Meanwhile, conservative leaders are urging Trump to weave in heavy language on abortion after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) sparked national outcry last week for comments interpreted as defending infanticide. The senior official said Trump is likely to bring up the issue, which aides described as an effective way to energize his political base after he caved to Democrats in January to end the shutdown.

“For Trump, right now, this is ‘go time,’” Republican pollster Frank Luntz said. “This speech, on this night, is not what you are against. It is what you are for. Tell the American people what you want to do and why.”

Yet, Trump’s natural disposition is to fight, and this is an especially adversarial moment for the president as he battles for building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and chastises congressional Democrats and the news media.

Trump has said he is on the verge of declaring a national emergency, which would trigger executive powers to attempt to redirect some federal funds toward border wall construction without approval from Congress.

“We’ve set the stage for what’s going to happen,” Trump said last week.

Any such move is likely to draw legal challenges and spark a political firestorm, and some administration lawyers have questioned the president’s authority to do so, but plans have been developed for an emergency declaration nonetheless.

Mulvaney has told Trump that a national emergency would be “viable” and has looked for pools of public money to exercise the option. Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers have reviewed draft declarations while identifying at least three companies that might be able to begin work on the wall under no-bid contracts, according to people familiar with the administration’s planning.

In pursuit of a wall, Trump has few options. He does not want another government shutdown, believing that he was politically pummeled over the last one, and House Democrats have made clear they will not vote to fund wall construction ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline to pass a new homeland security spending bill.

McConnell privately cautions Trump about emergency declaration on border wall

Senate Republicans also are overwhelmingly resistant to declaring a national emergency, according to two senior GOP aides. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) privately cautioned Trump last week that doing so could divide the GOP and told the president that Congress might pass a resolution disapproving an emergency declaration.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a Trump confidant, said: “It’s not their call. There is not a single president over there in the Senate. There are, quite frankly, a few of them over there who ran for president.”

The administration is also preparing for what one ally called “a subpoena blizzard” once House Democrats launch their promised oversight investigations, which are expected to probe the president’s conduct and personal finances as well as alleged corruption in the administration.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone and deputy counsel Michael Purpura have met with leaders of individual agencies to provide instructions about responding to oversight requests and examining their staffs. The lawyers have been strategizing about what they expect to come, and Mulvaney has met with agency chiefs of staff to help them prepare, according to a person who attended the meeting.

A beefed-up White House legal team prepares aggressive defense of Trump’s executive privilege as investigations loom large

Chase Untermeyer, who served as director of presidential personnel under former president George H.W. Bush, said he was “puzzled” Trump has left so many top political positions in his government either unfilled or staffed by “acting” officials. Those vacancies could prove especially problematic once the Democratic-led investigations begin, he said.

“Regardless of storm clouds, you have to have a team fully deployed in the field, not just inside the White House, but inside the departments and agencies,’’ Untermeyer said.

Meanwhile, Trump was brooding last week over a former White House aide, Cliff Sims, whose tell-all book depicts dysfunction and disloyalty in the West Wing. Staffers brought excerpts of Sims’s book to the president and defended themselves against their ex-colleague’s portrayal, which advisers said only further agitated Trump, who dismissed Sims as a low-level “gofer.”

Trump has been less focused on the memoir of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) — who wrote scathingly about Kushner but sympathetically about the president — though he told aides that he has not “loved” all of Christie’s comments during his media tour, according to a senior White House official.

The president also was angered by news coverage of his intelligence leaders, including Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, and their testimony before Congress, where they contradicted the president on several national security issues, including North Korea, Iran and the status of the Islamic State. But officials said he did not read the testimony — he only saw the news accounts — and was assuaged when the intelligence officials explained to him what they told senators.

Over the weekend, Trump tried to escape the troubles in Washington by making his first trip in two months to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. After spending Christmas at the White House, the president jetted to Palm Beach, Fla., where he played golf with two sports legends.

“Great morning at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida with @JackNicklaus and @TigerWoods!” Trump tweeted Saturday along with a photo of the three smiling.