A brand new year suggests a fresh slate with a new set of resolutions and unlimited opportunities for advances and accomplishments. But control your optimism. We’re talking Washington here.
To outline some opportunities – and dangers — for the Year of the Dog, here are some questions to keep in mind, whose answers are likely to dominate the news in 2018:
WHAT LESSONS has President Trump learned from his first tumultuous year? TBD. But a big one would be think thrice before firing an FBI director months after the transition. That’s what got Trump the special prosecutor, whose mounting dangers seem obvious but remain unknown.
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The reality TV star brought “You’re fired” into his White House. Reince Priebus. Sean Spicer. Anthony Scaramucci. Have you noticed though those sorts of likely impulsive acts have diminished since the summer installation of chief of staff Gen. John Kelly?
We’ll see normal staff turnover in this inaugural anniversary month. The burnout rate in these 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. jobs is high in any administration. Turnover waves exist even in administrations without such leaked backbiting eagerly gobbled by lurking media. Departures could include a high-profile appointee like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the target of numerous waves of vicious anonymous leaks.
DOES TRUMP RECOGNIZE his biggest domestic threat, special prosecutor Robert Mueller? Trump may be impulsive and self-indulgent, but he’s not blind. He and supporters spent months corroding the credibility of Mueller’s investigation, which handed them ample ammo to allege partisan bias.
Recently, however, Trump is talking nice about Mueller, expressing confidence the ex-FBI director will be fair whenever his wide-ranging probe concludes. And anyway, Trump claims, there’s no Russian collusion to find.
NOW ABOUT CONGRESS: Can Republicans within either house work better together to minimize the threat of Judgment Day in midterm elections 45 weeks away? They sculptured a big December tax reform win, but somehow lost the economic narrative in the media to hysterical Democrats like Nancy Pelosi likening 80 percent of taxpayers keeping more of their earnings to the Apocalypse.
House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to take on the crucial issue of runaway federal entitlements, forever unpopular in a me-first America. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he wants to work on bipartisan issues like infrastructure repairs.
But here’s the problem in a hyper-partisan America where the concept of public duty has shriveled to irrelevance: There is no political advantage to Democrats working with Republicans on anything. Just as Republicans refused to give one single vote to Obamacare’s passage by Democrats in 2010.
But wait! Gridlock is not politicians’ fault. Blame voters. They “punished” that partisan GOP obstinacy with an historic ousting of 64 House Democrats in the 2010 midterms, handing Republicans control there to this day.
Even if the Democratic Party had a leader, it’s hard to blame its legislators for following the same successful GOP strategy of non-cooperation in a midterm year.
NOW, ABOUT FOREIGN AFFAIRS: As he has domestically, the man who was elected by a disgruntled minority to shake things up has rattled the norms of traditional diplomacy, which cherish predictability. His questions about the value of traditional alliances, for instance, hand critics and media more ammo to depict a loose cannon.
A good 2018 lesson is to watch Trump’s actions more than his words. He’s sent U.S. troops to the Russian borders of Poland and Baltic nations to show security commitments. Barack Obama sent pre-packaged troop meals as his commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty threatened by Russia; Trump sends anti-tank weapons.
When Syria gassed innocent civilians, Obama drew a red line. Trump devastated the launching base. As promised, Trump unleashed U.S. forces against ISIS. It’s no longer an organized fighting force.
As promised, Trump decertified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear pact. As promised, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He’s drafting a new strategy to attempt containment of Iran, which now has 125,000 troops in Syria on Israel’s borders.
The North Korean nuclear weapon issue remains unresolved, but Trump ended two decades of “strategic patience” that let the rogue nation advance this far. And he’s built strong security relations with leaders in Japan and South Korea.
ABOUT MEDIA: Will Trump continue assaults on so-called dishonest media and fake news? You bet.
Some D.C. media now claim this threatens the First Amendment and a free press. Let’s go to the videotape. If Trump actually moved to curb press freedoms, this would be true. But all he does is complain loudly over their self-important heads via Twitter and call out perceived media mis-steps, some of which are legitimate complaints, some not.
Trouble is, Trump’s self-serving plaints resonate profoundly with many Americans who have so many more sources of information now. They can easily spot the abundant bias in negative news that usually gets heavily covered and positive news that often gets mostly ignored. A favorite headline: ‘Trump fails to unite Americans’ published a month before he took office.
Trump’s media relations are symbiotic. He actually loves media, craves their attention, in fact, and not just as easy foils. They feed his ravenous ego. He’s probably the most accessible recent president. And he provides the ratings and readers that help sustain their troubled businesses.
But trust is very difficult to restore. If media were more conscientious about eliminating inaccuracies and wishful fabrications that must then be recalled, that would be a start. Even better, it would allow enhanced focus on the same serious problems within the Trump White House.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.