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By Jonathan Allen
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told Congress on Tuesday that the economy would crash and no policy work could be done if lawmakers investigate his administration or stand in the way of his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria.
The lines, delivered early in his State of the Union address, were so clearly designed to draw cheers from his Republican allies that they even included a rhyme scheme.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” he said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”
Instead of applause, Trump was met with steely silence.
Amid Trump’s nearly 5,200 words Tuesday night, that absence of sound spoke loudest. It represented a growing and increasingly fraught disconnect between the president and Congress on two issues that figure to factor prominently in his two-year quest for re-election. And, more broadly, it demonstrated again that the president no longer has the kind of command over GOP foot soldiers in Congress than he once enjoyed.
Just this week, the Senate voted 70-26 on a nonbinding amendment opposing a “precipitous withdrawal” from either Afghanistan or Syria — a reaction to Trump’s plans to bring troops home from both countries — and several Republicans have said they hope the president does not try to execute an end-run around Congress to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
While Trump promised Tuesday that “I’ll get it built,” Republicans chose not to fund the wall when they controlled the House and Senate in the last Congress.
And on the heels of Trump slamming top intelligence officials whose testimony on Capitol Hill has contradicted his claims about Iran cheating on the nuclear deal from which he withdrew the U.S., the appetite among lawmakers to heed his call to back down on their oversight role seems to be minimal.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said Tuesday night that Trump is mixed up about Congress’ role.
“The president seems to believe that because Congress must legislate, we should not investigate,” Cummings said in a statement. “Of course, the Constitution requires us to do both. That is exactly how it works.”
For Trump, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria represents the delivery of a campaign promise — and a potentially powerful plank in his re-election platform.
“As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach,” he said. “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
That line, which reflects the sentiments of many voters, including many Democrats, drew mild applause in the chamber.
Of Afghanistan, he said, “We do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace … it’s time.”
In 2016 and again now, Trump has bet that the voting public is at odds with politicians in Washington about continued U.S. engagement in foreign wars. One data point that supports that theory: when the Senate voted this week to announce its opposition to hasty withdrawals, most of the Democrats running for president or considering bids voted against the amendment and, essentially, with Trump.
The amendment was nothing more than a policy statement — it didn’t restrict Trump in any way — but the fact that the Republican-led Senate chose to vote on it demonstrated an increased willingness among GOP lawmakers to make public their disagreements with the president.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, one of the Democrats weighing a bid for the presidency, criticized Trump’s methods but not his decision to move toward bringing troops home.
“The president’s decision-making process about troop levels in Afghanistan and Syria has been reckless and wildly inconsistent,” he said after the vote. “But the president’s failure to construct a coherent foreign policy doesn’t mean that the right answer is for U.S. troops to stay deployed overseas with no end in sight.”
The bigger issue for Trump could be the wide-ranging investigations into his administration taking place mostly on the Democratic-led House side of the Capitol — the ones he referenced high in his address.
Some Democrats want to impeach him. But even short of investigations by the House — or special counsel Robert Mueller finding impeachable offenses related to his campaign’s connections to Russia or obstruction of justice — probes into the conduct of executive branch agencies and the White House could hurt his re-election effort.
After two years of a raucous GOP defense of him in the House, the sound of silence Tuesday night was stunning.
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Trump snubs John McCain during bill signing intended to honor him
WASHINGTON — Congress wanted to honor the ailing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. President Donald Trump did not.
In extended remarks during a visit to Fort Drum in upstate New York to sign the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 — this year’s version of an annual bill that sets defense policy — Trump chose not to mention the former prisoner of war and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who is battling brain cancer. He even omitted McCain’s name when citing the title of the bill.
The two men have long been fierce critics of each other, with McCain calling Trump’s supporters “crazies” in 2015 and Trump retaliating by questioning whether McCain, who was subjected to torture in a Vietnamese prison camp, is really a “war hero” because “he was captured.”
The snub at Fort Drum, home to the combat aviation brigade of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, did not escape the notice of McCain’s allies.
“For those asking did I expect Trump to be an a—— today. No more than I expected it to be Monday,” Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime aide, wrote on Twitter.
McCain’s condition — dire enough that a recent HBO documentary on him was titled “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls” — has not stopped Trump from deriding the Arizona senator at political rallies. Though Trump does not use his name, he tells crowds that he would have been able to repeal Obamacare if not for a thumbs-down sign from one senator — McCain.
The senator’s own statement included Trump’s name in the headline and in a preamble written by staff. But the words attributed to McCain did not.
“I’m very proud that the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 has been signed into law,” he said.
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