President Donald Trump faces a new, more challenging political landscape in the US after midterm elections in which Democrats won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives on a surge of popular opposition to the president and his agenda.
How Trump reacts now, whether he continues to pursue division or moderates his approach, is likely to determine how much he gets done in the balance of his presidency and what his re-election chances are in 2020.
Complicating the picture for Trump is the likely negative impact of a forthcoming report by Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation and the prospect Democrat committees in the House will use subpoena powers to launch damaging public inquiries.
“Trump is now surrounded by Democrats in the House and that’s important legislatively and in terms of possible oversight of the executive branch and investigations,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“Trump has to pivot and work with the Democrats on issues where they can find some common ground if he wants to have a successful second half of his term.”
In a wide-ranging and at times combative press conference at the White House, Trump claimed success for Republicans in the election, offered praise for the incoming Democrat leader Representative Nancy Pelosi and suggested he would work to find bipartisan deals on infrastructure, prescription drugs and trade policy.
But Trump warned he would adopt a “warlike posture” if Democrat politicians push investigations of him and his administration.
“Trump will try to do whatever he can to delegitimise the whole investigative endeavor,” Rozell told Al Jazeera.
“That’s been his style; Go on the attack, raise questions in the mind of the public about the intentions, the neutrality of investigators. And it’s working. Polling data show a plurality of voters think Mueller is partisan and they oppose it.”
Less than 24 hours after the Democrats took the House, Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, drawing widespread criticism from Democrats.
Sessions, who championed Trump’s crackdown on immigration, among other policies, had become a target of Trump after recusing himself from the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Congress’ top Democrats called the apparent firing “very suspect” and a “blatant attempt” by the president to undermine and end the Russia probe.
Because Republicans held on to the Senate, the upper chamber of the US Congress, Trump will likely be insulated from threat of impeachment by House Democrats.
Pelosi said in a press conference that she sees opportunities to work with Trump on drug prices and infrastructure but also that the House would pursue its oversight hearings on Trump policies like the separation of migrant families at the southwest US border with Mexico.
“The Trump team obviously saw the Senate as where they were most likely to succeed and the way the election unfolded that’s where they put a lot of their attention,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
|Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi remarks on Midterm Election results [Mike Theiler/Reuters]
“They lose a big piece of institutional leverage in the House, but they don’t lose the whole Congress,” Henson told Al Jazeera.
“What we see coming up is an interesting test of the president’s ability to play the game – his ideological fluidity – when the board looks different in important ways.”
Republicans gained at least two seats in the Senate to retain a 51-46 seat margin of control, with votes still being counted in Arizona and Florida, meaning the tax cuts and regulatory reductions Trump and Republicans put in place early in his term will remain for at least two more years. The Senate race in Mississippi is headed for a runoff on November 27.
“For Trump to work together with the Democrats he’s got to change his personality,” said Stan Collender, a longtime Washington budget analyst. “He has been so unwilling to compromise that it’s hard to imagine that he suddenly becomes a big deal maker.”
Democrats gained at least 26 seats in the House, enough to claim a narrow 220-seat majority of the lower chamber of Congress.
The margin of win for Democrats, about nine percentage points nationwide, was larger than in most previous midterms but still less than the `Blue Wave’ many Democrats had hoped for.
Pivoting to foreign affairs
Constrained by politics at home, Trump is likely to turn more to foreign affairs as US presidents often do when faced with an uncooperative Congress.
“It’s a pretty big margin of victory and the projection is Democrats should have a comfortable majority in House,” said Shibley Telhami, a pollster at the University of Maryland who tracks the intersection between US public opinion and American foreign policy.
Telhami expects the new Congress to put pressure on the Trump administration to bring an end to the war in Yemen.
“There has been such rising opposition to the war in Yemen and not just among Democrats. It includes Republicans in both the Senate and the House,” Telhami told Al Jazeera.
“You are likely to see more hearings related to Yemen which will force people to put more on the table and reveal more about America’s involvement in that war and increase the pressure on the administration to stop.”
Reflecting the rise in public pressure prior to the election, US Secretaries of State and Defence Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis both said the Yemen war should be curtailed.
Focusing on China and Iran
Losing the House to Democrats and swelling public opposition in the midterm election will give hope to leaders in China and Iran who are contending with Trump’s pressure campaigns, analysts say.
High on Trump’s agenda will be the US trade fight with China and plans to move forward with tough economic sanctions against Iran. Trump will meet President Xi Jinping at the G-20 Summit of industrial nations November 30 and December 1 in Buenos Aires.
Trump is likely to continue the trade fight with China while imposing sanctions on Iran so long as he can avoid a spike in oil prices that would hurt the US and its allies in Asia and Europe, according to Kim Wallace, managing director for the United States at the Eurasia Group.
“Last night demonstrates why Xi Jinping’s team is comfortable waiting out Trump on this trade fight,” Wallace told Al Jazeera.
“It’s not just 2018 election results and 2019 US macro-economy. I think the 2020 cycle is also something the Chinese will want some information from in terms how much they are willing to negotiate their trade rules and practices.”
On Iran, “Trump pays attention to the overall supply and price in the hydrocarbon space which is a big deal to the US economy and big deal to a lot of his supporters”, Wallace said.
“He wants to say ‘I reimpose sanctions on Iran, we are going to crush them,’ but he doesn’t have to put up with the economic blow back of strangling supplies to people that you can still call trading partners.”