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Shutdown enters final chapter, Russia probe snares another Trump advisor

Shutdown enters final chapter, Russia probe snares another Trump advisor
  (Los Angeles Times)

Ever since his party’s loss in November’s midterm elections, the dominant story line in Washington has been walls closing in on President Trump.

This week ends with the walls tightening on two fronts — the government shutdown and the Russia investigation.

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On Thursday, the Senate rejected the plan Trump had offered as his “compromise” to end the shutdown. A Democratic alternative got more votes in the Republican-controlled chamber. On Friday, Trump’s longtime advisor Roger Stone was arrested in the Russia probe.

Both actions occur against the background of a small but significant drop in Trump’s already low standing with the public and underscore the president's parlous political position.

Shutdown: The final chapter?

The Senate defeat of both Trump’s proposal and the Democratic alternative came as no surprise. But the vote count mattered, nonetheless. The fact that six Republican senators broke ranks to vote for the Democratic plan, as Jennifer Haberkorn noted, sent a clear message to the White House.

Republican senators reinforced that message behind closed doors in a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence in which they chastised the administration and insisted the time was now long overdue to bring an end to the shutdown, now about to start its sixth week.

Friday morning brought a sharp amplification of that message as a shortage of air traffic controllers, who are working without pay, forced the Federal Aviation Administration to close LaGuardia Airport in New York to incoming planes and to slow traffic across the Northeast.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met on Thursday to start negotiations — their first public talks on the issue — and on Capitol Hill, legislators seemed to believe the stalemate was nearing its final phase.

McConnell, in particular, has made a point until now of keeping his hands off the shutdown. He publicly said in December what he had privately told White House officials all along — shutdowns never work and only inflict political damage — and had worked with some success to keep himself and his Republican Senate colleagues out of the public line of fire.

McConnell’s public involvement in talks indicates that he believes a negotiated solution may now be achievable. And the White House statement that Trump would consider a short-term measure to reopen government agencies, which would allow some 800,000 federal workers to get back pay, provided further evidence, although Trump is still holding out for a “down payment” on his proposed border wall.

As always, the unknown variable is Trump. Any settlement will require him to back down from his insistence that he will not sign a government money bill unless it includes funds for the wall. Democrats won’t give him that although they are willing to provide more money for border security, some of which would go to more border barriers.

Trump has laid the grounds for a retreat, saying, “I have other alternatives if I have to” — an allusion, perhaps, to declaring a national emergency on the border and trying to use that as a way to shift money from other government programs to pay for building barriers. Whether any such move would survive a court challenge is unknown, but it would, at least, allow Trump to back away from the current standoff without admitting defeat.

But whatever rhetorical formulation Trump uses, the fact of defeat will be hard to avoid.

As McConnell predicted, the shutdown has not worked. Democrats have maintained an impressive degree of unity, despite White House expectations that they would desert the position taken by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The longer the shutdown has gone on, the more the public has seen it as a serious problem and has blamed Trump for it, again contradicting what White House officials had predicted.

Early in the week, Trump attacked Pelosi, saying she was acting “irrationally.” By midweek, she had forced the president to publicly back down over giving his State of the Union speech, a highly public and symbolically potent humiliation. And Trump’s standing with voters has suffered.

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When the shutdown began, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed the public with a negative view of Trump’s job performance — 43% approving, 52% disapproving. By the end of this week, Trump’s standing had dropped to 41% approving and 56% disapproving.

That’s not a huge shift — Americans’ views of Trump are so firmly entrenched that his numbers never move a lot — but it puts him back near his all-time low and puts his standing below where it was on election day in November, when his party lost 40 seats in the House.

Exactly how the standoff will be resolved remains unclear, but as government workers braced for a second missed paycheck on Friday, the end seemed to be coming into sight.

Russia: The next chapter

The end isn’t here yet for the Mueller investigation.

Mueller may be close to wrapping up and submitting a final report, as has been widely reported. But Friday’s arrest of Stone, the long-time Trump advisor and self-declared dirty trickster, showed there’s more business to complete before that happens.

As Chris Megerian reported, the charges against Stone had been repeatedly forecast, by the defendant, among others. So the accusation that Stone lied to investigators about his communications with WikiLeaks came as no surprise.

What stood out in the indictment were statements showing that Mueller’s investigators had evidence of high-level Trump campaign interest in WikiLeaks and its publication of emails that Russian agents had stolen from Democratic campaign files.

“A senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases” by WikiLeaks, the indictment said, without identifying either the senior official or who “directed” him.

That’s not evidence of criminal conduct, but it ties the campaign more directly to WikiLeaks. By doing that, it puts the spotlight back on what Democrats have long seen as a central part of the case — whether Trump’s aides directly or indirectly played a part in Russia’s efforts to harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign by hacking her files and using WikiLeaks to release embarrassing emails.

Stone’s arrest was the second major eruption of news on the investigative front this week. On Wednesday, Trump’s former lawyer and longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, announced he was postponing his scheduled testimony before the House Oversight Committee. He blamed “threats” from Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, directed at his family.

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House Democratic leaders responded with suggestions that they might issue subpoenas to Cohen and with warnings to Trump not to try to intimidate witnesses.

Meantime, Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was back in court Friday for a hearing on prosecutors’ accusations that he had lied to them after accepting a plea-bargain agreement. If a judge agrees, Manafort could face a harsher sentence.

Democratic field — Harris an early front-runner

Sen. Kamala Harris announced her long-anticipated presidential bid on Monday, and as Melanie Mason reported, started immediately as a top-tier candidate.

A straw poll of Democratic activists by the Daily Kos site showed Harris with an early lead in the Democratic field. That sort of survey isn’t a random sample and probably doesn’t reflect the sentiment of Democratic voters more widely, many of whom don’t know much about the first-term California senator.

But at this stage of the campaign, a year before the first votes come, such measures of enthusiasm do provide meaningful information. If nothing else, it’s testimony to a campaign rollout that’s gone almost entirely without a hitch.

Friday night, Harris plans a trip to South Carolina, a state whose primary in February will be key to her campaign plans. She’s scheduled to attend a gala thrown by Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s oldest African American sorority, which she joined as a student at Howard University. Evan Halper will be there.

Harris learned her political skills in the rough crucible of San Francisco politics, Michael Finnegan wrote in a look back at one of the candidate’s formative moments.

Harris made her announcement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but she was far from the only Democratic hopeful trying to use the holiday to connect with voters. Trump, by contrast, made only a very brief, almost perfunctory, public appearance, posing for a photograph at the King memorial in Washington.

Janet Hook and Eli Stokols looked at the contrast in handling MLK Day and what it said about the two parties.

Meantime, another potential California candidate, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, refocused on his potential White House bid, giving a speech in Washington in which he said his role in helping settle the Los Angeles teachers’ strike showed his ability to lead.

As Halper wrote, the speech laid out the “mayors know best” theme that Garcetti would use in a presidential contest.

Halper also looked at a dilemma facing several of the Democratic hopefuls, including Harris: Run to — or away from — big donors?

The rest of the week’s news

The Supreme Court waded into the transgender debate but avoided other tough issues, as David Savage wrote. The court’s actions illustrated Chief Justice John Roberts’ approach of trying to avoid divisive issues when possible.

One issue the court has put off until next year was the question of whether Trump has the unilateral authority to end the Obama-era DACA program, which shields some 700,000 young immigrants from deportation. Lower courts have blocked Trump’s actions, and the high court’s decision not to speed ahead on the case pretty much guarantees that DACA will remain in effect well into 2020, at least.

The administration is proceeding with another part of its immigration agenda, however, pushing asylum seekers back across the border as part of its new “Remain in Mexico” policy, Molly O’Toole and Kate Linthicum reported.

Don Lee looked at the effort by the administration and congressional investigators to raise questions about the Confucius Institutes that the Chinese government pays for on many college campuses.

Administration officials have warned that the institutes are tools that China can use to influence the U.S., even, perhaps, to hide espionage. Critics accuse officials of mounting a “red scare” campaign.

As Megerian wrote, intelligence officials warned in a major threat assessment that isolationism and weakening support for Western institutions are threats to U.S. security. The report showed the vast gulf between the country’s intelligence agencies and Trump.

Finally, speaking of threats, former Gov. Jerry Brown was back on the public stage this week warning of nuclear apocalypse and the dangers of climate change. Brown was in Washington in his new role with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and said he planned to spend the next several years raising the alarm over proliferation and global warming.

Logistics

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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