What to Know in Washington: Trump Gets Two Rebukes From Congress

President Donald Trump is facing a double-barreled rebuke from Congress this week, setting up the first vetoes of his administration and showing cracks in his ability to maintain unity among Republican lawmakers.

The first blow came last when the GOP-controlled Senate passed a measure rejecting U.S. military support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Today, senators are poised to reject Trump’s declaration of an emergency on the southern border.

The reprimands — both requiring defections from Republican ranks — come as Trump seeks to consolidate the party’s support ahead of what promises to be a tough fight for re-election in 2020. They also underscore the consequences of a midterm election that left Democrats in control of the House and GOP lawmakers unable to shield the president from legislation he opposed.

While Republicans in Congress have occasionally criticized the administration, the two measures this week mark the first instances in which party leaders haven’t been able to stop bills that embarrass Trump.

The Yemen legislation, which is likely to pass the House in coming weeks, picked up support beginning late last year when Trump defended Saudi Arabia after columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. On the emergency declaration, which was already passed by the House, some GOP lawmakers have said the move interferes with their authority to determine how tax dollars should be spent.

Trump was able to avoid a full-scale rebellion by GOP lawmakers that would allow a veto override. That means Trump — barring separate legal challenges — should be able to move forward both with his efforts to redirect funding to the construction of the border wall and arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Maintaining that hold over his party will be crucial as Trump continues to engage in high-stakes negotiations with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who demonstrated during the recent 35-day government shutdown her ability to hold Democrats in line despite high political risk. Read more from Justin Sink.

Trump is ready for the vote, he said today. “A big National Emergency vote today by The United States Senate on Border Security & the Wall (which is already under major construction),” he tweeted. “I am prepared to veto, if necessary. The Southern Border is a National Security and Humanitarian Nightmare, but it can be easily fixed!”

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
Trump during a briefing on drug trafficking on the Southern Border at the White House.

Politics & Policy

Beto Joins Race for President: Democrat Beto O’Rourke plunged into the party’s crowded presidential nomination race, banking on the star power and fundraising prowess he demonstrated during his run for the Senate in Texas last year to prevail in a months-long primary campaign.

“I’m running to serve you as the next president of the United States of America,” O’Rourke said in a video announcement Thursday morning. “This is a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us.”

O’Rourke said one of the reasons he was entering the race is that “the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy and our climate have never been greater.”

The former Texas congressman narrowly lost a Senate contest to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) last fall, but managed to build a nationwide following with his unconventional and optimistic style combined with a populist message that brought in almost $80 million in mostly small donations. Early polls of potential Democratic nominees put O’Rourke in the top tier of candidates. But his challenge will be to show the party’s voters where he fits between the unabashed progressive stances of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and centrists such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) attempting to straddle party factions with their campaigns. Read more from Billy House and Jennifer Epstein.

Warren Propels Fringe Antitrust Views: Warren’s call to break up big tech companies like Facebook and Amazon thrust into the mainstream an emerging movement that favors an aggressive attack on corporate power. Warren’s proposal last week to classify some technology giants as utilities and undo previous industry mergers jolted Silicon Valley. It also hit a nerve among Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who’ve grown increasingly concerned that curbs on anti-competitive conduct are poorly enforced. That all but ensures that restraining the power of dominant companies will be a focus of the 2020 campaign. Read more from David McLaughlin.

Neal Challenged Over Tax Return Pace: Some progressive Democratic groups are threatening that they could mount a primary challenge to House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) if he doesn’t move more quickly to obtain Trump’s tax returns. The pressure to speed up the request for Trump’s returns is laying bare divisions within the Democratic ranks on one of the central issues that helped the party win dozens of seats in the 2018 midterm elections.

Neal’s hesitancy, arguing that he wants to build an airtight legal case, is making him a target of the ascendant left wing of the party, which has challenged establishment Democratic leaders to pursue progressive social and economic issues more aggressively. “If you want to make an example of an old, out-of-touch insider, he’s making himself the obvious first choice at this point,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supports Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) among others. Read more from Joe Light.

Happening on the HillDems Target Colleges After Scandal: Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is looking to end tax breaks for college donations that parents may be making to universities in an attempt to get their children admitted. Wyden said he plans to unveil a bill that would prohibit donors to colleges to take a tax deduction for those charitable contributions before or during the time a family member is enrolled.His announcement follows the indictments of dozens of wealthy parents, college coaches and a college admission counselor in a sweeping criminal conspiracy to gain admission to elite universities, including Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. Read more from Laura Davison.In the House, Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla), a former college president, asked for the House Education and Labor Committee to hold a hearing with college admissions officials over the scandal. Shalala (D-Fla.) said she has spoken with committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) about holding a hearing with college admissions officials to gain a better understanding of the admissions process at schools. Shalala served as president of the University of Miami and a chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Whitaker Stays Mum on Trump-Cohen, Nadler Says: Former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker declined to repeat denials that Trump called him after his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and arranging hush-money payments, according to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Unlike in the hearing room, Mr. Whitaker did not deny that the president called him to discuss the Michael Cohen case and personnel decisions in the Southern District” of New York, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told reporters after two hours of closed-door questioning yesterday. Read more from Billy House.

FBI Building Site Decision: The government’s property manager said that Trump “had no involvement’’ in the FBI’s decision to keep its headquarters near the Trump International Hotel in Washington but declined to say if he voiced any preference on the agency’s choice. Emily Murphy, the General Services Administration’s head, told a House panel that the FBI made its decision to raze and replace the dilapidated J. Edgar Hoover Building more than two weeks before she and top Justice Department officials met with Trump to discu ss how the project would be financed. Trump’s financial interest in the nearby hotel had no influence on the decision, she told the House Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee. Read more from James Rowley.

Bipartisan Battery Storage Efforts: Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) unveiled a package of battery storage bills designed to lay the groundwork for technologies that could give a boost to renewable energy and help make the electricity grid more reliable. Collins and Takano have pushed battery storage incentives for years, together launching the bipartisan Battery Energy Storage Caucus in 2015. They announced a new Advanced Energy Storage Caucus in unveiling their legislative package, to promote better awareness in and out of Congress on energy storage i ssues and advocate for policies that promote battery storage technologies. Read more from Dean Scott .

What Else to Know Today

U.S. Grounds Boeing: U.S. regulators reversed course yesterday and grounded Boeing’s top-selling 737 Max family of airliners after evidence emerged showing a flight that crashed Sunday in Ethiopia may have experienced the same problem as a plane that went down five months ago off Indonesia. Satellite flight-tracking data, combined with newly discovered evidence from the recent accident, raised suspicions about a safety feature on the Max that was implicated in the Lion Air crash in October, Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said in a briefing. Read more from Alan Levin and Jennifer Epstein.U.S.-China Trade: Trump acknowledged concerns in Beijing about the possibility of him walking away from a trade deal, offering to push back a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping until a final deal is reached. “We could do it either way,” Trump told reporters yesterday at the White House. “We can have the deal completed and come and sign or we can get the deal almost completed and negotiate some of the final points. I would prefer that. But it doesn’t matter that much.”Meanwhile, Gary Cohn, the former head of Trump’s National Economic Council, said the U.S. is “desperate right now” for a trade pact with China as negotiators from both countries seek to reach a deal. “The president needs a win,” Cohn said in an interview with the Freakonomics podcast, according to a transcript released yesterday. Cohn’s comments stand in contrast to statements from Trump that he’s in no rush for an agreement and is prepared to walk away from negotiations. Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

Saudis Head to OPEC+ Talks: Four months ago, Saudi Arabia’s devotion to its decades-old oil partnership with the U.S. was stronger than ever. Trump was poised to choke off crude exports from the kingdom’s political nemesis, Iran. And the Saudis, shunned by other nations after the murder of Khashoggi, were readily obliging the White House with record supplies. But the Trump administration stunned Riyadh by softening its crackdown on Iran at the last minute, allowing many customers to continue buying and triggering a crash in oil prices. Since then, the Saudis’ trust in their main political ally has frayed. Read more from Grant Smith and Javier Blas.

Rick Perry Extends Olive Branch to AOC: As Trump’s energy czar and former governor of the biggest source of American oil, Rick Perry had a startling response to the author of the Green New Deal: Let’s talk. Perry, in an appearance at the biggest North American energy conference yesterday, said he’s interested in “getting together and having a conversation” with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez about the low-carbon blueprint intended to free the country from fossil-fuel dependence in a decade. Read more from Javier Blas and Joe Carroll.

Free-Speech Groups Support WikiLeaks Effort: A trio of free-speech groups urged a U.S. judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed against WikiLeaks by the Democratic National Committee over the disclosure of private DNC information, arguing that published material — even if acquired illegally — is protected by the First Amendment. The suit, filed by the DNC last April, accuses Russian intelligence of hacking into computers, penetrating its telephone systems, gaining access to tens of thousands of documents and emails and releasing them through WikiLeaks and other methods. The DNC also alleged that Trump’s campaign organization conspired with WikiLeaks, a claim Trump has denied. Read more from Chris Dolmetsch.

Trump’s N.Y. Legal Trouble: This week New York affirmed what’s been mere speculation until now: Law enforcement in the state, where Trump has long based his business, is starting civil and criminal investigations that are well beyond the president’s federal control. Those may lead to charges against people in his orbit, including his children, with crimes that he can’t pardon. They may also bog down his business operations. “These are things he can’t exert control over,” said Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. “It’s got to be frightening to him.” Read more from Erik Larson and Andrew Harris.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

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