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Jacob Heilbrunn US Politics

Donald Trump will feel right at home in Davos

January 23, 2018

3:30 PM

23 January 2018

3:30 PM

After a prolonged dry spell, the Donald, to borrow from Billy Bush’s memorable taped remark, has finally scored again. For the past week, Trump has been buffeted by revelations in the appropriately named In Touch magazine about his alleged dalliance with the porn star Stormy Daniels. Melania is reportedly so incensed that she will no longer join Trump on his trip to Davos. At the same time, Trump’s own staff immured him in the White House over the past few days so that he couldn’t disrupt Senate negotiations over ending a government shutdown.

Now, however, Trump has something to crow about: the capitulation of the Democrats. Trump’s elation over the Republican slam-dunk against the Democrats, who caved in yesterday by assenting to a temporary spending bill that lasts a mere three weeks, is palpable. It even extends to his perennial nemesis, CNN. Today, he tweeted in a mood of unwonted magnanimity: 

There are sound reasons for Republicans to gloat. It’s the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are now mired in a looming civil war. One rather piquant sign has come with a brouhaha on the left over liberal hero Chelsea Manning, the transgender activist who famously leaked secret US government documents and now wants to run for the Senate in Maryland against Democratic stalwart Ben Cardin. Manning’s transgression? Attending an alt-right party in New York called ‘A Night For Freedom’. Manning claims that she was there to ‘gather intel’ but her presence has much of the left crying betrayal. 

This was a mere warmup for the left’s complaints about the Democratic leadership. Senate minority leader Charles Schumer gambled that he could force Trump and the Republican leadership to negotiate on the status of the 700,000 or so Dreamers, or children who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents. Instead, the widespread unpopularity of a shutdown forced him to retreat. Schumer accepted a vague promise from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to tackle the issue by February 8th.

Not surprisingly, the Democratic base sees a sellout. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee deemed Schumer’s failure to continue the government shutdown a ‘cave’ from the ‘weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats’.

But if Schumer went wobbly, he had good incentives to do so. His stewardship shows that the Jeremy Corbyn-faction of the Democrats, while restive and growing, does not control the commanding heights of the party. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris all harbuor presidential ambitions and voted against the deal. But Schumer, a creature of Wall Street and a former chum of Trump’s, wasn’t about to lead the Democrats on a suicidal charge and jeopardise his party’s chances in the midterm November 2018 elections. The longer he stuck to his original position, the more he would have endangered mainstream Senate Democrats in states such as West Virginia and Montana, a fact that Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, a virulent foe of immigration, pointed out even before the shutdown started.

Still, the agreement to restart government only lasts for three weeks. It constitutes an armistice, not an end to hostilities. Not only is Congress unable to pass an actual budget, but if Republicans don’t come to some resolution on the Dreamers—polls indicate that over 80 per cent of the public wants them to stay—then the Democrats can campaign on the issue in the midterms. For House Republicans, who are the sticking point on passing immigration reform, this could be lethal when it comes to their hopes of retaining a majority. This would require Trump, who has previously lauded the Dreamers, to support actual reform. As Senator Jeff Flake put it, ‘Ultimately, the President is going to need to get on board in order for the House to vote on it.’ The last thing Republican lawmakers in swing states will want are Democratic campaign ads of college students who have lived here since they were toddlers being deported. So by retreating the Democrats may have created a poison pill for the GOP.  

Then there is Trump himself. A new report in Vanity Fair by Gabriel Sherman indicates that Trump is intent on sacking his chief of staff John Kelly, proclaiming: ‘I’ve got another nut job here who thinks he’s running things’. Trump’s ire apparently centres on Kelly’s remarks to Fox News that Trump had ‘evolved’ when it came to building a wall on the border with Mexico. He compounded the damage by telling Democratic legislators that Trump was ‘uninformed’ on the topic. Word is that Ivanka Trump is leading the search for what would be Trump’s third chief of staff in little over a year in office.

Nor is this all. Trump’s recidivist tendencies may also manifest themselves when it comes to dealing with Congress. His most apposite role is to serve as a figurehead president who keeps his finger on the nation’s cultural pulse rather than trying to negotiate with lawmakers. But his own staff knows that he can’t refrain from trying to take a starring role. ‘It’s a foregone conclusion he’s going to escape’, another White House adviser told Politico. ‘He’s like Houdini. If you keep him in a cage, he’s going to get out.’

But maybe there is a solution to this conundrum. All Trump needs is his Twitter account to function as president. It doesn’t really matter where he resides.

For Trump, living in Switzerland would appear to have a number of upsides, beginning with the fact that it is a venerable tax haven. It also voted to ban minarets in 2009. So if he wants his political fortunes to recuperate fully, then Trump might emulate Hans Castorp, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, which is set in Davos, by turning what was supposed to be a temporary visit into a lengthy one at the local sanatorium. Maybe even Melania would overcome her ire at his past frolics and come visit him.

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