The nationalists are back.
For weeks, the anti-globalist wing of President Trump’s White House, led by his strategist Steve Bannon, has appeared to be in retreat, losing important battles over trade, relations with China and resources for the promised border wall with Mexico.
But Trump’s speech in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday, denouncing the Paris climate change accord, was one of the most stridently nationalist of his tenure. It marked a clear triumph for the Bannon faction.
Good afternoon, I’m David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
A CLIMATE TEST OF STRENGTH
The long debate within the White House over the climate accord can be seen through several lenses. One was as a test of power between Bannon and his allies and Ivanka Trump, who played a central role in organizing support for the treaty from business leaders and foreign officials.
At least on this issue, the president sided decisively with his populist adviser over his cosmopolitan daughter. He not only rejected the treaty, he denounced it as a perfidious effort by foreigners to “take advantage” of the U.S.
Trump’s speech made clear a key reason why the Bannon side won:
“We are keeping the promises I made to the American people during my campaign for president,” Trump declared. A few moments later, he added that “we’re following through on our commitments, and I don’t want anything to get in our way.”
That stress on keeping promises has been a key one for Bannon. Trump may or may not believe the claim he often makes that he won the election by a landslide. Bannon, however, knows fully how narrow Trump’s victory was and how tenuous the coalition behind it.
The key voters who put Trump over the top — especially the 10% or so of his backers who had voted for President Obama four years earlier — included millions of blue-collar workers who, among other traits, are prone to believing they have repeatedly been lied to by politicians.
They were willing to take a risk on something dramatically different and put their faith in Trump, but in many cases, they did so tentatively. Their affection for Trump wars with suspicion toward the Republican Party and the big-money types who populate much of his administration. Strategists in both parties believe that one of the keys to keeping their loyalty will be reassuring them that Trump is delivering on what he pledged.
Already, polls show doubts spreading on that score, and Trump has been keen to emphasize his fidelity to his core supporters.
As Cathy Decker wrote in her analysis of the politics of the climate decision, Trump is making a bet that the narrow path that delivered him to victory in 2016 is also the road to reelection in 2020. So long as that wager remains in play, tending to his base of blue-collar backers will be Trump’s top priority — even if that means disappointing his daughter.
In addition to Evan Halper and Alexandra Zavis’ main story on Trump’s decision and Decker’s political analysis, there’s a lot else in our coverage: A roundup of reaction from around the world, a primer on what the Paris Accord actually includes, and a look at Gov. Jerry Brown’s role as he heads to China for a climate summit are among the offerings.
The climate announcement came toward the end of a week in which Trump took a first step toward shaking up his White House staff, as Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett reported.
The president also engaged in a long-distance feud with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which cast the final days of his overseas trip in a more negative light. Since the president very often personalizes issues, it’s possible that his testy relationship with Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron contributed to his final decision on the Paris agreement.
BIDEN’S BACK (OR DID HE NEVER GO AWAY?)
Speaking of 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden launched a new political action committee this week.
American Possibilities, he calls it, and the possibility that seems most apropos is that he might try, yet again, to get the Democratic nomination for president.
Biden, now 74, has been seeking the presidency for at least 30 years. He launched his first campaign in 1987 and was considered among the front runners for at least a little while, until as sometimes happens with him, his gift for gab got in his way: An aide to his rival, Gov. Mike Dukakis of Massachusetts, discovered that Biden had expropriated part of his stump speech from a British politician, the Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.
That was the end of Biden’s run in that election cycle, but, as the late Rep. Mo Udall used to say, the only true cure for the presidential bug is embalming fluid.
TWO PARTIES, ONE FOCUS
It’s way too early to think about what issues a 2020 election might center on. For now, however, as Cathy Decker noted, both parties appear to be defining themselves around Trump. Neither has yet had much luck in trying to define for the public what it stands for other than in relation to the president — the GOP in support, the Democrats in opposition.
SEE YOU IN COURT
Late Thursday night, the Justice Department filed its appeal at the Supreme Court, asking the justices to reinstate Trump’s temporary ban on travel from six mostly Muslim countries in the Mideast and North Africa.
As David Savage wrote, the justices are likely to consider the case on a fast track. If they handled the matter on their normal schedule, the court wouldn’t hear arguments in the case until next fall, which could mean blocking the ban for months more. The administration will push to prevent that sort of extensive delay.
A central issue will be whether lower courts were right to use Trump’s language during the campaign — his vow to enact a ban on Muslim immigration — as evidence that the travel order, despite its neutral facade, was actually a violation of the 1st Amendment.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va., made heavy use of Trump’s own words in its 10-3 decision blocking the ban from going into effect.
The order “speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination,” Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote in the decision.
That emphasis on the context — what Trump said before he became president — raises a lot of legal problems. As the dissenters on the appeals court noted, it implies that if another president, who had not made such incendiary pledges, had issued the exact same order, it might have been valid.
MISSILE DEFENSE, MISSILE OFFENSE
As North Korea continues to test its missiles, more attention has focused on the U.S. military’s long effort to develop missile defenses.
This week, that effort passed an important test, as a U.S. missile fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, up the coast from Santa Barbara, successfully shot down a test missile fired from thousands of miles away in the Marshall Islands.
As David Willman reported, the drive to build an effective anti-missile system has cost taxpayers at least $40 billion so far over the past 15 years. Despite Tuesday’s test, which military officials hailed as a success, it still has a long way to go to become truly effective.
Taxpayers also have been spending a lot to upgrade the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Pentagon’s plan to upgrade the U.S. stock of land-based ICBMs would cost at least $85 billion.
As Bill Hennigan and Ralph Vartabedian reported, many defense experts, inside and outside the Pentagon, question whether that’s money well spent. The ICBMs may have outlived their usefulness, some defense experts believe.
THE POLITICS OF MIDDLE EAST PEACE
One promise Trump isn’t keeping is his pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Just like each of his past three predecessors, Trump has used the authority Congress gave the president to waive a law requiring that the embassy be moved.
As Tracy Wilkinson reported, Trump echoed previous presidents in saying that the move would damage prospects for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The waiver, like each of the ones signed in the past, lasts six months. So for now, the embassy remains in Tel Aviv.
THE HEALTHCARE DEBATE NEARS A KEY POINT
Senators will be getting back to Washington, D.C., next week after a break for Memorial Day, and when they return, the Republican majority will have to start making some decisions about healthcare.
During the break, Senate aides have been meeting to try to determine if any proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare can get to 50 votes. It’s been a tough slog.
History suggests caution. Noam Levey took a look at what happened two decades ago when lawmakers in the state of Washington abruptly repealed a healthcare law that shares a number of Obamacare’s central concepts. The result: chaos in the state’s insurance markets that took years to fix.
RUSSIA PROBE INTENSIFYING
The pace of the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election and any possible coordination between Moscow and Trump insiders accelerated this week.
As David Cloud and Joe Tanfani reported, the House Intelligence Committee issued subpoenas for some significant people, including former national security advisor Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer.
Meantime, Robert Mueller III, the special counsel heading the Justice Department’s investigation of the case, cleared the way for James Comey, the former head of the FBI, to testify publicly to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. Comey is expected to answer at least some questions about Trump’s efforts to persuade him to drop the FBI’s investigation of Flynn.
John Dean, the former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, is an expert on presidential scandals. If he were back in his old job, what would he tell Trump? Mark Barabak asked him, and you can read his answer.
DON’T FORGET COVFEFE
Of all Trump’s many tweets, few have gotten as much attention, at least on social media, as the oddly truncated one, sent in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, which referred to “the constant negative press covfefe.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to acknowledge anything unusual about the tweet, saying the next day that “the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”
That bit of spin aside, the most likely explanation for Trump’s tweet, given its hour, is that he fell asleep while typing the word “coverage” and didn’t notice until he woke up hours later.
But as Brian Bennett noted, the White House refusal to offer the public any explanations leaves open the possibility of more serious scenarios.
Trump is, after all, a 70-year-old overweight man whose age, weight and lack of exercise put him at risk for a variety of ailments. And U.S. history includes repeated efforts by White Houses to cover up presidential health problems, including Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attacks, John Kennedy’s Addison’s disease, Richard Nixon’s heavy drinking and the early stages of Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s.
The other eruption of the reality-show nature of the Trump presidency involved Kathy Griffin and her widely panned stunt of posing with a model of the president’s severed head. Mary McNamara examined how that intersection of politics and celebrity culture proved that even these days, there is such a thing as going too far.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets, “covfefe” included. It’s a great resource. Take a look.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, 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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