A day after a midterm election that shifted the balance of power in Washington, President Trump and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi expressed hopes for bipartisan cooperation on Wednesday but both laid down clear markers about the new House majority’s oversight role, foreshadowing a political fight that could dominate the run-up to the 2020 election.
In an often-combative news conference at the White House, Trump urged Democrats to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other potential legislation — but he threatened a “warlike posture” if they subpoena his tax returns or cellphone records, or investigate other sensitive matters.
He warned that he would respond to Democratic investigations in the House by using the Republican-controlled Senate to conduct inquiries, saying it would be “extremely good for me politically because I think I’m better at that game than they are.”
Pelosi, who is likely to be elected speaker of the House for the second time by the Democratic caucus despite opposition from some members, promised in a separate news conference to focus on “strengthening the institution” of Congress as a check on the executive branch.
Like Trump, she emphasized the need for greater cooperation in the polarized capital. But Pelosi will have to contend with a Democratic majority that was swept into power in large part by voters who revile the president and are determined to block or even impeach him.
“We have a responsibility for oversight,” Pelosi said, promising a judicious approach. “You can be sure of one thing: When we go down any of these paths, we will know what we are doing and we will do it right.”
Trump, referring to his congratulatory call to Pelosi on Tuesday night after her victory speech, pressed her to follow through on her calls to heal the country’s divisions after a campaign marked by inflammatory charges and violence, including the massacre of 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“I really respected what Nancy said last night about bipartisanship and getting together and uniting — she used the word ‘uniting,’” Trump said.
But he also threatened to retaliate against his political foes by unleashing the GOP-controlled Senate against Democrats. Though senators typically don't vigorously investigate their own party, they are unlikely to give the White House control of their power to subpoena and investigate.
Trump mocked the slew of congressional investigations and the special counsel investigation, led by former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Mueller’s inquiry has led to guilty pleas or convictions of five of Trump’s former top aides so far, and indictments against more than two dozen other individuals.
“It’s been a long time; they've got nothing, zero. You know why? Because there is nothing,” Trump said. “But they can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate, and a lot of very questionable things were done, between leaks of classified information and many other elements that should not have taken place.
“And all you're going to do is end up in back and forth and back and forth, and two years is going to go up and we won't have done a thing.”
Democratic leaders, including Pelosi and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), are already trying to tamp down some of their party’s most aggressive proposals, especially the activists calling for impeachment.
“My view is the Democratic Party is going to be united on implementing an agenda that we talked about during the campaign,” said Hoyer, who is in the running to be House majority leader.
Hoyer and Pelosi have repeatedly said that they wanted the Mueller investigation to play out before they make any decisions on pursuing impeachment. Mueller has given no public sign of how quickly he intends to finish, or how he will release his results.
Others on Capitol Hill are even skeptical of demanding Trump’s tax returns from before he became president, unconvinced that they contain a smoking gun that would embarrass Trump.
“There’s a fine line between being aggressive and also willing to work to get things done,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist based in Wisconsin, one of the traditionally blue states that tipped to Trump in 2016. “Both sides have that same pressure.”
Less than an hour after Trump’s news conference, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said he had been forced to resign and Trump named Sessions’ former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general. Whitaker, who has publicly criticized the Mueller investigation, will now take over supervision of it.
The shift immediately drew the ire of Democrats. Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Burbank Democrat likely to chair the House Intelligence Committee, said Sessions’ firing “places the special counsel’s investigation in new and immediate peril.”
“Interference with the special counsel’s investigation would cause a constitutional crisis and undermine the rule of law,” Schiff said in a statement. “If the president seeks to interfere in the impartial administration of justice, the Congress must stop him. No one is above the law.”
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — now Trump’s most senior GOP ally in Congress — appeared unwilling to get between the president and the new House majority. Asked whether Democratic investigations would limit his ability to work with Pelosi, he tersely answered, “No.”
But he warned that such “presidential harassment” didn’t work well for Republicans when the House impeached President Clinton in 1998. Clinton was later acquitted in the Senate and served out his term.
“We impeached President Clinton. His numbers went up and ours went down and we underperformed in the next election. So the Democrats in the House will have to decide just how much presidential harassment they think is good strategy. I’m not so sure it will work for them,” McConnell said.
McConnell said his priority was to add more conservative appointees to the federal judiciary. He said the expanded Republican majority in the Senate, coupled with the likelihood of a light legislative workload in the split Congress, may make that easier.
“I think we’ll probably have more time for nominations in the next Congress … because the areas of legislative agreement will be more limited,” he said.
Democratic leaders in the Senate did not appear optimistic about a possible thaw in the partisanship.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was skeptical of negotiating with Trump, leaving the door open to bipartisan legislation on immigration while insulting the president.
“The president's a very poor negotiator on those issues,” Schumer said. “He makes agreements and he backs off, so we're sort of dubious of sitting down with the president and making that kind of exchange again when twice he's … shaken hands and then backed off.”
During the news conference, Trump refused to reckon with questions about his own inflammatory rhetoric throughout the race, blaming the media instead for creating a divisive political climate.
“I’m a great moral leader,” Trump said, after he initially responded to a question about a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes by pointing to his supposed popularity in Israel.
When asked whether his declaration of himself as a “nationalist” in the final weeks of the campaign could have sent a signal of tacit support to white nationalists, Trump lashed out at the reporter asking it, an African American woman.
“That’s such a racist question,” he said.
Trump downplayed Republican losses in the House, but his effort to command the post-election narrative also exposed fissures in the GOP coalition.
Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who opted not to run for reelection and saw Democrats flip his seat Tuesday night, blasted Trump for name-checking fellow moderates like Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Mia Love (R-Utah), who lost.
“To deal w harassment & filth spewed at GOP [members of Congress] in tough seats every day for 2 yrs, bc of POTUS; to bite ur lip more times you’d care to; to disagree & separate from POTUS on principle & civility in ur campaign; to lose bc of POTUS & have him piss on u. Angers me to my core,” Costello tweeted.
Times staff writers David Lauter, Noah Bierman and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.