Trump's unprecedented year in the White House: The biggest dramas and battles on Capitol Hill

With scandal, infighting and leaks being a regular occurrence at the White House, Congress has found it difficult not to follow suit

Alexandra Wilts
Washington DC
Tuesday 16 January 2018 22:38
Capitol Hill has also faced its fair share of drama during the first year of Donald Trump's presidency
Capitol Hill has also faced its fair share of drama during the first year of Donald Trump's presidency

Donald Trump’s first year in the White House has got everyone talking, no more so than on Capitol Hill where members of Congress have had to deal with the President’s mood swings, off-the-cuff statements and his constant Twitter presence.

With scandal, infighting and leaks being a regular occurrence at the White House, Congress has found it difficult not to follow suit. Resignations and intense partisan clashes have become common at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue – which is all taking place against the backdrop of Republican concern that Mr Trump could be impeached if the party loses control of Congress this year.

Believing that Republicans are intentionally undermining congressional probes into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election – as well as the federal probe looking at potential links between Russia and the Trump campaign - Democrats have started striking out on their own, leaving the non-partisan investigations looking anything but.

The constant drip-feed of stories about the Russia investigation has left the rumour mill spinning in the halls of Congress and on the streets of Washington, with representatives and senators often appearing on news networks to give their two cents on the latest leaks.

Last week, without consulting the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, released a transcript of a 10-hour interview with Glenn Simpson – a co-founder of Fusion GPS, the research firm behind the controversial dossier on Mr Trump’s reported ties to Russia.

Ms Feinstein said the transcript’s release would enable people to “make up their own minds” about what materialised during the committee’s interview with Mr Simpson, which had been the subject of a number of news reports. However, committee chairman Chuck Grassley blasted his colleague for the move, calling it “confounding”.

In the House of Representatives, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan that accused the top Republican of orchestrating a campaign to bury a probe into the President’s alleged connections to the Kremlin and defame the agencies investigating those matters.

Chatter in the halls indicates that legislators expect the political flame-throwing to worsen, with Democrats asserting that their colleagues across the aisle are deferring to Mr Trump, who has called the Russia probes a “witch hunt”.

Democrats have also secured a number of recent election wins – including the recent Senate race in Alabama – which have put a spring in their step ahead of the midterm elections in November. The party will seek to wrestle back control of the Senate, which the Republicans currently hold with a 51-49 majority. Recent results have raised hope that they can regain the House, where they need 24 seats in the 435-seat chamber.

While chances were once slim that Democrats would retake the House and Senate, Mr Trump’s frequent inflammatory comments and feuds with members of his own party have made the possibility more likely. Much of the talk is now about the need to create a wave of Democratic wins.

With both parties having been hit by retirements and resignations related to sexual harassment scandals, paranoia has filled the passageways of Capitol Hill over when the next such allegations may appear. This – along with several members of Congress blanching at the thought of tough reelection campaigns – has left the door wide open for plenty of seats to switch across both chambers.

A possible impeachment of Mr Trump is another issue that has never been far from the minds of most around Congress, from the bars around the Hill to the Capitol building itself.

“If we lose the House, he could get impeached. Do you think he understands that?” one top Republican donor is said to have heard an exasperated Republican senator declare privately last year, and it is clear others in the party are fearful of the idea.

However, like Republicans, Democrats have also suffered from internal discord, particularly over the impeachment issue. Democratic leaders so far have discouraged impeachment chatter, which has ratcheted up multiple times in recent months in the halls of the Capitol following revelations about Mr Trump’s conduct regarding the Russia investigations.

There is no question that Mr Trump’s antics and the deluge of sexual misconduct accusations often diverted focus from Congress’s legislative agenda over the past year. But all of this drama could create an opportunity for members of Congress to make a name for themselves, potentially by creating order from chaos or by standing up to Mr Trump.

Names for potential presidential candidates, such as Democratic senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, are already being floated, even though the election is still almost three years away.

Both women have made it clear that they are ready to fight Mr Trump’s policies, and – in Ms Gillibrand’s case – the personal attacks of the President himself.

It is harder to predict what will happen on the Republican side, with the party’s congressional leadership having hitched its wagon to Mr Trump. However, discontent appears to be simmering over Mr Trump’s actions, and a thin GOP majority in the Senate may mean more members will be willing to take a stand on certain issues.

That may include the president’s plan to overhaul the US’s healthcare system – an effort he repeatedly failed to get enough Republican support for during his first year in the White House. Mr Trump also appears committed to building a wall along the US’s southern border – a goal likely to continue complicating attempts to reach an immigration deal with Democrats. Negotiations were already complicated last week after the president reportedly described Haiti, El Salvador and certain African nations as “s***hole countries” and questioned why the US needed to admit more Haitians into America, a strength of language that will do little to dampen the acrimony between the two parties in Congress.

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