Former President Donald Trump may be gone from the White House but his legacy of catastrophic mistrust is poisoning Washington, dimming hopes of a unified effort to crush the pandemic before mutant viral strains take root.
Nine days after newly sworn-in President Joe Biden told America that “every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” recriminations between the parties and the Republican meltdown are consuming Congress.
It’s now clear that the January 6 mob attack on Capitol Hill, while failing in its bid to reverse Trump’s election loss, has utterly fractured the basic level of trust needed to make a political system function — at a critical national moment.
In the quarter century of bitter political battles since former speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution, Washington has never been this inflamed.
At times on Thursday, it appeared that the whole of Congress was fixated on its own civil wars, cut off from behind its high iron fence from the reality of America’s darkest modern winter.
And with more than 432,000 Americans dead from Covid-19 and the economy in ruins, hopes are fading — amid the acrimony — of a bipartisan effort to beef up the crucial vaccine drive.
The magnitude of that death toll has much to do with Trump’s neglect when he was in office. The tumultuous forces now rocking Capitol Hill are, in most cases, linked to Trump or the extremism of his acolytes who have fully bought into his alternative reality that rejected truth and democracy itself.
In an extraordinary comment on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned of the enemy “within” in an apparent reference to some pro-Trump Republicans.
“We have members of Congress who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress,” Pelosi said.
Given the urgency of getting every American — regardless of party — a vaccine before the pandemic mounts another deadly wave, it might have been expected that the Republican House leader would be locked in negotiations.
But Kevin McCarthy was in Florida, paying homage to the ex-President, paving the way for Trump’s political comeback and effectively launching the 2022 midterm election campaign.
The make-up session means McCarthy is pinning his hopes of winning the House majority next year on the Trump base and an aggressive political effort by the former President. Far from being ostracized for trying to destroy democracy, Trump is yet again dictating its future.
Trump is still a hero to his base, but since he just comprehensively lost a national election, McCarthy is taking a gamble. In the shorter term, his genuflection means that with the House GOP in thrall to the former President and his vengeful instincts, Republicans will be even less ready to work with Biden on critical efforts to respond to the pandemic.
‘You almost had me murdered’
Adding to the sense of unchained uproar, the Republican Party is eating its own. Trump protege, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, flew to Wyoming Thursday to lead a revolt against No. 3 House Republican leader Liz Cheney, who — in a vote of conscience — voted to impeach the former President over the mob assault.
It is extraordinary that the only senior Republican in danger of being toppled over the insurrection that has been forgotten or excused by many Republican leaders is Cheney, an authentic and lifelong conservative.
Rank-and-file Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing an attempt to expel newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has supported the fringe conspiracy movement QAnon, following a report by CNN’s KFile that before running for office she supported calls for the assassination of Democratic leaders on social media.
Greene, a Georgia Republican, is an enthusiastic supporter of Trump and in a town hall meeting on Thursday night repeated lies that the election was stolen from the ex-President who has endorsed her several times.
In another sign of the toxicity paralyzing Congress, House Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York lashed out at Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had appeared to agree with her on the need for an investigation probing chaos on Wall Street. The New York Democrat, who has said she felt her life was in danger during the insurrection, tweeted that “you almost had me murdered.” Just before a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, Cruz had objected to the certification of Arizona’s electoral votes, embracing the baseless allegations from Trump of an improper election.
The acidic mood in Congress is also caused by the chasm on whether to punish the ex-President for inciting the riot.
Republican disinterest in holding the former President accountable for the insurrection in his impeachment trial starting next month is eroding the already tenuous effectiveness of the 50-50 Senate.
And in a previously unthinkable suggestion, the acting chief of the Capitol Police proposed a permanent fence around the Capitol. Not even the terrorist attacks on September 11 led to proposals for such draconian security measures.
Calm reigns at the White House
The pandemonium on Capitol Hill contrasts with the methodical calm that now prevails at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue just over a week into Biden’s presidency.
The President doggedly pressed ahead with his effort to rollback Trump’s political program on Thursday, signing an executive order that will expand access to Obamacare, the health care law Trump tried to destroy.
Incredibly, given the circumstances, Biden still believes that he can get Republicans and Democrats on board with his pandemic rescue bill, though has signaled he may be ready to negotiate the $1.9 trillion price tag.
“He continues to believe that this can be — should be and will be a bipartisan bill … and he’s having conversations with and listening to leaders and members of both parties to assure that we get to exactly that place,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
But there are increasing signs of impatience among Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, suggesting that time may be quickly running out for the new President to put a bipartisan veneer on the bill.
“We want to work with our Republican colleagues to advance this legislation in bipartisan way, but the work must move forward, preferably with our Republican colleagues, but without them if we must,” Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
Pelosi also signaled that she was ready to use a procedural device known as reconciliation to swiftly pass a bill to boost vaccine supplies, alleviate the housing crisis and extend unemployment benefits if Republicans didn’t sign on.
The President has announced an ambitious bid to completely overhaul the faltering vaccine distribution effort left over by the previous administration. But the plan is contingent on a huge boost in funding that only Congress can provide. While hospitalizations and new cases of Covid-19 have fallen across the country, the baseline is still highly elevated. Many medical experts are concerned that mutations of the virus that are more transmissible, slightly more deadly and may be more resistant to vaccines could soon become dominant and trigger another wave of sickness and death. Two cases of one of those variants, first detected in South Africa, were found in South Carolina, officials said Thursday. The discovery was so worrying because Biden said this week that it will be the end of the summer before all Americans get the vaccine.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and an informal adviser to Biden’s coronavirus team, warned of “the darkest of days ahead.”
“What we can expect to see in the course of the next, I think, six to 14 weeks, is something that we haven’t even come close to experiencing yet,” Osterholm said on CNN’s “New Day.”
That’s not a message that is breaking through on Capitol Hill.