Trump’s best week ever?
His highest approval ratings yet. A Democratic debacle in Iowa. A State of the Union address that fired up his base and infuriated his foes. And finally, an historic acquittal in the Senate.
Republicans say Donald Trump had perhaps the best week of his presidency, nine months before the election. And even some Democrats privately agree with that assessment.
“Through a combination of unforced errors and political maneuvering, Trump had one of his best weeks,” one House Democrat involved with the impeachment effort acknowledged to The Hill.
That sentiment has congressional Democrats seriously fretting about their 2020 prospects and questioning whether any of their four front-runners — Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden — can deny Trump a second term.
Trump, meanwhile, took a victory lap on Thursday, just a day after the Senate acquitted him of two impeachment charges, ending the four-month saga over the president’s campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden and interfere in the upcoming election.
His daylong rally began Thursday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he hoisted up print copies of USA Today and The Washington Post featuring the headlines: “ACQUITTED” and “Trump Acquitted.”
By the afternoon, he was at the White House celebrating with dozens of staff members, congressional allies and conservative media personalities.
“We went through hell unfairly. Did nothing wrong. Did nothing wrong. I’ve done things wrong in my life, I will admit. Not purposely, but I’ve done things wrong. …” Trump said in an hourlong, rambling speech in the East Room.
“But now we have that gorgeous word. I never thought that word would ever sound so good. It’s called total acquittal,” he said.
Even before his inevitable acquittal, Trump was already having a good week.
Ever since he arrived in Washington, Trump’s poll numbers have consistently been under water. But Gallup this week said Trump’s approval rating stood at 49 percent, a personal best during his three-year presidency.
The new poll landed with a splash Tuesday morning, hours ahead of Trump’s annual State of the Union address and as Democrats were scrambling to make sense of an Iowa election crisis of their own making.
The night before, the Iowa Democratic Party had failed to tabulate and report results from the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, blaming the snafu on an online app that had failed. Both Buttigieg and Sanders declared victory as the votes were still being counted. But The New York Times on Thursday reported errors and inconsistencies with the count, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez soon called on the state party to immediately start a recanvass.
The chaos has led to calls from Democrats to block Iowa from going first next time in the presidential nominating contest, and sparked complaints from furious Sanders supporters that establishment Democrats — just like in 2016 — were trying to halt the Vermont senator’s momentum.
At a private meeting this week, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other House GOP leaders joked that “only Donald Trump could win both the Democratic and Republican Iowa caucuses,” according to Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who attended.
Republicans were also quick to tie the Iowa “screw-up” — as Sanders called it — to the failed 2013 launch of the Obama administration’s Healthcare.gov website.
“You look at Healthcare.gov. You look at the Iowa caucuses. You really want to put these folks in charge?” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told The Hill. “It’s a legitimate question to ask.”
On top of that, two top leaders of the host committee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee were fired for creating a toxic work environment — a negative story that largely flew below the radar this week because of the Iowa disaster, Trump acquittal and State of the Union.
Trump’s annual address to Congress was, as expected, controversial. He snubbed his political nemesis, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), when she tried to shake his hand; Pelosi returned the favor by shredding a copy of his speech. And his 90-minute address was packed with red meat for his conservative base, including a big section on illegal immigration and his border wall.
But Trump also drew on his reality-TV past to create an address that kept viewers at the edge of their seat and pulled at their heart strings. Like a game-show host, Trump gave a scholarship to a young disadvantaged, minority student; reunited a military family; and directed his wife, Melania, to drape the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of a cancer-stricken Rush Limbaugh, who had to be pushed in a wheelchair to the House gallery.
Democrats blasted Trump for turning the State of the Union address — and the House chamber — into a stage for one of his political campaign rallies. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) predicted all of Trump’s theatrics would backfire, excite the liberal base and cost Trump his reelection. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) dismissed it as a “MAGA rally.”
“That was not a State of the Union; that was his state of mind,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday, specifically singling out the Limbaugh spectacle. “Do it in your own office. We don’t come in your office and do congressional business. Why are you doing that here?”
But one House Democrat said she looked up from the floor and saw people in the gallery wiping away tears when Trump surprised a North Carolina military wife and her two children by informing them he had brought her husband back home from his fourth tour in the Middle East.
The doors opened and Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams barreled down the stairs to embrace his kids and kiss his wife.
“It was like Oprah; it was effective,” the Democratic lawmaker said, acknowledging that it likely played well for the television audience.
It’s less clear how well Pelosi’s shredding of Trump’s speech fared. It appeared to energize the Democratic base, but it also came under criticism and contrasted with the Speaker’s usual desire to follow decorum. Some rank-and-file Democrats called it a misstep that gave the GOP an opening and fueled Trump’s fundraising machine.
Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill are departing Washington with a bounce in their step. Cole, a former House GOP campaign chairman, called this week the “trifecta of politics: Iowa, State of the Union, impeachment acquittal, and then the Super Bowl kicking it all off.”
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who attended the White House celebration, called it Trump’s “best week” since he shocked Hillary Clinton — and the Washington establishment — in November 2016.
“He scored one victory after another, shaking up Democrat leadership and putting their entire party in a tailspin,” Banks told The Hill on Thursday. “Democrats’ 2020 election chances are faring about as well as Speaker Pelosi’s copy of the State of the Union.”
Mike Lillis contributed.
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