Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
This will be a defining week in Donald Trump’s short tenure so far, with critical events in Washington and Florida. The summit with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at the President’s Mar-A-Lago resort will have a material impact both at home and internationally. Preceded by two new executive orders aimed at laying the foundation to driving down bilateral trade deficits, this White House is set to embark on its first major foray into foreign policy. The world’s two most powerful figures are on a collision course, having engaged in a passive and sometimes aggressive war of words since the President declared his candidacy. Trump told a Fort Wayne, Indiana rally last May “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country”. Then, three days before Trump’s inauguration, the Chinese Premier rebuffed Trump’s worldview in a staunch defence of globalisation and free trade: “Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. Wind and rain may be kept outside, but so is light and air.”
The summit is a big opportunity for President Trump to restore his status as an expert deal-maker, having suffered political and reputational damage during the healthcare Bill failure. Combining trade, deal-making and negotiating, the US-China talks are precisely the kind of setting American voters imagined Trump succeeding in when they went to the polls on 8th November. Sent to Washington with a clear mandate to make trade deals work better for American wallets and workers, this is a chance Trump simply has to take.
The expense at which presentational victory could come remains unknown. In need of a public relations boost, the President might trade off realpolitik requirements in the South China Sea for the quick wins of billion-dollar Chinese investments in American infrastructure, creating masses of jobs and ‘winning’ tweets in the process; an approach that speaks to the President’s known transactional view of international relations. The American interlocutors enter the talks from a point of weakness, needing a short-term win to stave off headlines at home. Under no such pressure, the Chinese will play a more strategic, long-term game.
Can’t win? Change the rules.
In Washington, the political focus turns sharply towards the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the vacant Supreme Court seat – and the process required to get him there that could change the Senate forever. The full Senate will vote on the nomination Friday, but the real action will come on Thursday when the Senate holds the cloture vote to end debate that could force Republicans into activating the so-called ‘nuclear option’.
If a vote is brought to the whole Senate, Gorsuch will need 60 votes to be confirmed. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said it is “highly, highly unlikely that he’ll get 60 [votes]”. With a 52-48 Republican majority in the Senate, eight Democrats are needed to confirm Gorsuch. Only three Democrats have declared they will vote for him, all of whom are under pressure to lend the President support as ‘red state Democrats’ (representing states that voted for Trump in the presidential election).
Insufficient opposition support leaves Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with two options: accept defeat on Gorsuch or change the rules, following the precedent set by former Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid, who in 2013 altered the filibuster rule for lower court nominees. Senator McConnell told Fox News on Sunday that Gorsuch will be confirmed one way or another, adding: “Exactly how that happens will be up to our Democratic colleagues.” It was a less than subtle suggestion that the Republicans will break the filibuster, removing the power of minority parties to filibuster Supreme Court nominees in the future. Institutional tradition would be disregarded, in a typically Trumpian manner that on this occasion was not driven by the President.
The rule change is significant in political circles but not much beyond the beltway. Within the halls of power, it points to yet another step towards institutional partisanship in Washington, making it less and less likely members will be willing to cross the aisle and vote with the opposition party for the foreseeable future. It is yet another indicator of political decision-making driven almost solely by party approach, with politics always outranking policy. Opining over the healthcare fallout, President Trump tweeted that “good things will happen, however, either with Republicans or Dems”. Going nuclear and confirming Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court Justice will rubber stamp an immovably partisan Congress for the foreseeable future. Picking up Democratic votes in a Republican-led House and Senate suddenly becomes even more difficult than ever before.
What does it all mean for the president?
The China talks represent an opportunity for the president to prove he is the ultimate deal maker, but with strategic and security risks attached. Meanwhile, getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice will require political manoeuvring that would change the process and nature of the Senate forever. It turns out that getting deals done in Washington and around the world isn’t easy after all. Some might even call it an art.