President Trump remained disciplined for weeks.
Throughout the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, Trump largely stuck to his script — defending his nominee, attacking his attackers — and mostly ceding center stage to others.
The president’s approval ratings ticked upward during that period in at least some surveys. Perhaps Republicans rallying to him in a fight explained that. But during the 2016 campaign, Trump’s popularity repeatedly moved up when his publicity moved down and he allowed the spotlight to focus on his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
That restraint seldom lasted long.
A HURRICANE OF PUBLICITY
With Kavanaugh approved by the Senate and participating in his first oral arguments, Trump returned to his previously scheduled programming: Make America Great rallies designed to energize his followers in advance of the midterm elections.
But a funny thing happened. The cameras stopped paying attention. With Trump saying very little that was new, even Fox News did not air his most recent speeches.
[How does a MAGA rally work? Read Noah Bierman on the anatomy of a Trump show, complete with a hero (that’s him), a jester (also him), villains, damsels, dystopia and lots of grievances. Also, on our recent USC/L.A. Times poll, we asked Americans what they think of Trump calling the press “enemies of the people.”]
Predictably, Trump strove mightily to get back into the limelight, even if that meant competing with a massive storm crashing into the Florida coast.
When the stock market began to dive, he took off after the Federal Reserve, saying the central bank was “going loco” on interest rates, as Jim Puzzanghera wrote. He also raised the possibility of firing Fed chairman Jerome Powell, something he probably can’t do.
He phoned Fox’s morning “Fox & Friends” show for an interview that ran so long that Steve Doocy, one of the anchors, virtually begged him to get off the air and “go run the country.” Then, a few hours later, he held a bizarre televised session in the Oval Office with Kanye West.
As Bierman wrote, Trump’s behavior served up a reminder that the president thinks of his job, in part, as producing a reality TV show, an endeavor in which ratings provide the measure of success.
Television producers, however, only need the intense devotion of a core audience. Political leaders need a majority. Trump has repeatedly put higher priority on the former than the latter. With the midterm elections coming, many of his party’s candidates seem likely to pay for that choice.
A GATHERING CRISIS
The administration initially tried to avoid saying much about the disappearance and likely death of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But as evidence has mounted that Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in an operation approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the pressure on Trump has mounted, as Laura King wrote.
The administration has tied itself closely to the prince, with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, serving as the main go-between.
A growing number of members of Congress have called for cutting U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump said Thursday that he would oppose cutting weapons sales because that could cost American jobs. Congress, however, gets to vote on approving many large weapons purchases.
THE KAVANAUGH AFTERMATH
Republicans came out of their victory in the confirmation battle on the attack. Party strategists claimed that their private polls showed them gaining ground as a result of the issue; nonpartisan, public polling so far provides a far more ambiguous reading.
Trump used a televised White House swearing-in ceremony to apologize to Kavanaugh “on behalf of our nation” and assert he was “proven innocent.” Other Republicans denounced anti-Kavanaugh protesters as a “mob.”
Anger provides a powerful motivator for voting, and the language from Trump and other Republican leaders clearly aimed to keep Republican anger high as much as possible.
Democrats, meantime, had a trickier balance to maintain. A significant chunk of the party’s activist base would like to continue investigations of the newest Supreme Court justice, perhaps as a prelude to an impeachment vote.
Party leaders, however, believe that kind of rhetoric turns off the swing voters they’re courting in suburban congressional districts this fall. All that poses an awkward challenge for Democrats, Laura King wrote.
For his part, Kavanaugh signaled during the argument of one of the first cases he heard that he would back the administration on jailing and deporting immigrants who committed crimes years ago.
DECISION CALIFORNIA: THE MIDTERM ELECTIONS
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s race for reelection from the Orange County congressional district he has represented for three decades remains one of the closest contests in the country. One prominent issue in the race has been Rohrabacher’s repeated contacts with Russian officials. David Willman examined the evidence.
In the Central Valley, Rep. Devin Nunes has a very well funded opponent, but he’s focused a lot of his energy not on attacking his challenger, but fighting his district’s largest newspaper. It’s a page from Trump’s playbook, Jazmine Ulloa writes.
Nunes is not alone in facing a well-funded Democratic opponent. As Evan Halper wrote, in districts across the country, Democrats are bringing in unprecedented amounts, mostly in small donations. That money could allow Democrats to challenge the GOP in unexpected places in the campaign’s final weeks.
HARRIS MAKING A MOVE
Sen. Kamala Harris has been traveling the country this midterm season, raising money for Democrats, collecting chits. At an appearance in Ohio, where the audience treated her like a star, she hinted she’ll think about a presidential run after the midterms, Sarah Wire wrote.
Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein said this week they’ll try to block Trump’s nominees for the 9th Circuit court of appeals. Their ability to do that will depend a lot on how the Senate looks after the midterms.
Meantime, Feinstein and her general election opponent, Kevin De León answered questions from The Times on priorities, diversity and what they’d like to ask each other.
GOVERNORS UP FOR GRABS
Trump’s success in the 2016 election depended heavily on victories in big, Midwestern industrial states. This year, most of those states seem poised to elect Democrats as governors.
As Halper reported from Michigan, the Democrat there, Gretchen Whitmer, seems on track to win. In Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic candidate, is way ahead of the Republican incumbent, Gov. Bruce Rauner. And Democrats have high hopes of unseating Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, where the race remains close.
In Ohio, Democrat Richard Cordray is also locked in a close race with Republican Mike DeWine. As Jim Puzzanghera wrote, Cordray, the former head of the federal consumer protection agency, is road testing pro-consumer themes that Democrats hope to use in the presidential race.
HALEY GETS A GRACEFUL EXIT
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced her resignation effective at the end of the year. As Bierman and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, Haley’s polite sendoff sharply contrasted with most other departures from the Trump administration.
Haley got a televised Oval Office farewell from Trump in which she made sure to say that she would not challenge the president for the nomination in 2020. Trump said he’d welcome her back in another post. Implicit in her promise was the acknowledgment that she could pose a threat to Trump if she did choose to run and that she’s a potential candidate in the future.
The scope of Haley’s job has shrunk this year as Trump found a secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, with whom he has strong rapport and a national security adviser, John Bolton, who shares many of his America First views. She also has some significant debts and stands to make a lot of money in a private-sector job.
Pompeo met again with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. As Wilkinson reported, this meeting went better than Pompeo’s previous trip to North Korea in which Kim snubbed the visiting American. Pompeo called the meeting “productive.”
From Pyongyang, Pompeo traveled to Japan, South Korea and China. That underscores a contradiction in the administration’s approach. As Don Lee wrote, Trump’s hardball tactics on trade have weakened America’s leverage on other issues, North Korea among them.
That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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