It often feels like the 45th President never left the stage, given the corrosive and complicated impact of his poisoned legacy on Washington. The traumatic aftermath of his term will take a new twist on Monday when his political guru Steve Bannon is expected to surrender after a federal grand jury indicted him last week for ignoring a subpoena from the House probe into Trump’s coup attempt. In the latest jarring flashback to that terrible day on January 6, Trump defended rioters who chanted “Hang Mike Pence” after his vice president refused to throw the election, in audio of an interview conducted for a new book by Jonathan Karl released by ABC News.
Trump, as he relentlessly solidifies plans for a likely 2024 presidential run, is meanwhile stepping up efforts to increase his dominance over the Republican Party, vowing to oust lawmakers who backed Biden’s bipartisan $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. The current President will hold a high wattage signing ceremony for the measure at the White House on Monday, which will include at least two Republican senators who will show up in defiance of Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an incessant target of the ex-President, who also voted for the bill, will not, however, take part in Biden’s victory lap. The event will be a reminder that Trump’s own inept attempts to pass such infrastructure reform turned into an object of ridicule.
If ever a President needed a win, it was Biden, who endured a tough summer. As he signs the measure he hopes will offer a jolt of momentum to his presidency, the President will put Mitch Landrieu, the former Democratic mayor of New Orleans, in charge of implementing the vast new law. But it is unlikely that a rare bipartisan spending program, necessary to fix US roads, railroads, bridges and airports, will be a magic fix for a presidency in turmoil.
Biden, whose approval rating tumbled to 41% in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll on Sunday, is facing accusations that he is not sufficiently focused on the issues that Americans most care about. A CNN/SSRS poll released last week found that 58% of Americans believed that Biden hadn’t paid attention to the nation’s most important problems. More than a third of respondents thought the economy was the most pressing issue.
An alarming spike in inflation and high gasoline prices are creating the kind of perfect economic storm that everyone in the country feels and that shapes political discontent. While elements of the infrastructure plan and the companion yet-to-pass social spending blueprint are popular, could create jobs and ease the burden on working Americans, they will take many months and years to play out. The high cost of living, brought on mostly by the pandemic and related supply chain issues, is giving Republicans a massive opening now as midterm elections loom in a year. With costs for Thanksgiving turkeys and travel rising because of supply chain backups and high energy prices, legislative wins will do little in the short term to ease Biden’s plight. The White House may also have another political brushfire to put out this week following a CNN story that revealed mutual frustration between the West Wing and Vice President Kamala Harris about her performance so far in the administration.
Trump derails democracy while Biden tries to save it
In many ways, Trump and Biden are continuing the battle that the ex-President lost in the 2020 election. The obstruction by Trump and his allies of the January 6 committee represents an expansion of the assault on democracy that was born when he could not accept the truth of his defeat a year ago.
Trump and his volcanic ego are now trying to turn the 2022 midterm elections — and potentially the 2024 elections — into a referendum on his lies that the last presidential election was stolen, a narrative that millions of GOP voters already accept. It also helps explain why he and his allies are trying so hard to cover up the truth of an attempt to derail democracy.
While Trump’s challenge to the rule of law is bedded into his political project, Biden’s infrastructure bill is also deeply rooted in the DNA of his presidency. He intends the bipartisan bill to prove that Americans can achieve great things when they are united and not ripped apart by demagogues like Trump. His use of government to create jobs and improve the lives of working Americans also has another purpose. The infrastructure bill and the spending bill, which still faces an uncertain fate amid intraparty clashes on Capitol Hill, are meant to show that democracy works and to drain the populist pool of resentment that is so often inflamed by Trump.
News that the architect of that populist movement had been indicted by a federal grand jury on Friday was a significant development in the showdown between Trump and the House select committee investigating the insurrection he incited on January 6.
Bannon, a former White House official and rabble rousing podcaster, allegedly played an important behind-the-scenes role in a “war room” dedicated to Trump’s bid to steal the election by disrupting the peaceful transfer of power to Biden. His claim that his conversations with Trump are protected by executive privilege appears to hold little legal merit since he was not even serving as an official at the time of the insurrection. And the committee wants to discuss his conversations with other Trump supporters that do not involve the former President.
If convicted, Bannon, 67, could face a maximum of one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 on each of the two counts against him. The decision by the Justice Department to move ahead with the case followed a formal citation of contempt of Congress approved by the House. The indictment made an important statement for now and in the future about Congress’ ability to enforce subpoenas in vital investigations. But it is likely to be borne as a badge of honor by Bannon and to fuel claims that once again a deep state political establishment is trying to persecute Trump — a narrative that is core to the ex-President’s appeal among many grassroots supporters.
The Bannon indictment may be a sign that the House select committee, in a race against time in case the GOP wins back the chamber next year and closes it down, is ready to take a hard line against witnesses that refuse to testify. This includes former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who didn’t show on Friday.
“When ultimately witnesses decide, as Meadows has, that they’re not even going to bother showing up, that they have that much contempt for the law, then it pretty much forces our hand, and we’ll move quickly,” Democratic committee member Rep. Adam Schiff of California said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The ‘cold, hard truth’
One of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the insurrection, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, issued an extraordinary warning on Sunday over Trump’s hold on his party and influence.
“The cold hard truth is Donald Trump led us into a ditch on January 6. The former President lied to us. He lied to every one of us and in doing so he cost (Republicans) the House, the Senate and the White House,” Gonzalez told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“I see, fundamentally, a person who shouldn’t be able to hold office again because of what he did around January 6. But I also see somebody who’s an enormous political loser. And I don’t know why anybody who wants to win elections going forward would follow that. I simply, like, I don’t get it ethically. I certainly don’t get it politically. Neither of them makes sense.”
Trump has already targeted members like Gonzalez over their impeachment votes, backing a primary challenger to the Ohio congressman, who has since said he won’t run for reelection. But now the ex-President is targeting the 13 Republicans in the House and 19 in the Senate who voted for the infrastructure bill, furious that they enabled a victory for the current President on an issue on which Trump so obviously failed to make progress.
“Saving America starts by saving the GOP from RINOs, sellouts and known losers!” Trump wrote in one of many enraged and lie-filled weekend statements. This one called on pro-Trump forces to stage primary campaigns against lawmakers that supported the infrastructure bill, as the ex-President tries to transform his party in his own anti-democratic image.
Trump’s power in the party and the impact of his maneuvering against Republicans who cross him was epitomized yet again on Sunday by the failure of a powerful Republican senator to repudiate his insurrectionist rhetoric. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso was asked repeatedly on ABC News “This Week” about Trump’s failure to stand with his then-vice president, who refused to bow to his pressure to steal the election from Biden while following constitutional requirements to certify the result of the election in January.
“President Trump brings lots of energy to the party. He’s an enduring force,” Barrasso said. “I don’t agree with President Trump on everything,” he added. “I agree with him on the policies that have brought the best economy of my lifetime and I’m going to continue to support those policies.”
However extreme Trump becomes, the essential Republican position — appeasing him to win power — remains the same.