Episode 4 — Checking Trump

News presenter: [00:00:05] Democrats have wrestled back control of the House of Representatives while Republicans...

News presenter: [00:00:09] Turnout was extremely high for a midterm election...

[00:00:11] (Headline mashup)

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:25] The US midterms. It's a story that, if you're working for an international news organization, you have to cover. But in 2018 there was something different about it. This was Trump's midterm.

Donald Trump: [00:00:40] If you want more caravans, if you want more crime, vote Democrat.

[00:00:45] (Headline mashup)

IT: [00:00:59] With his America First rhetoric, Donald Trump has definitely made his mark on U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy. He's rattled allies, cozied up to autocrats, and torn up one so-called bad deal after the next. He's been able to do that because his party's had total control in Washington. That changed this week. As predicted Donald Trump's Republican Party held the Senate. They even picked up a few seats. But the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives.

[00:01:34] So what does that mean for a president who until now has had few checks on his power? And what should the rest of the world take away from this election? This week on The Take, we put those questions to three Al Jazeera correspondents who know Washington politics really well and had some other Al Jazeera reporters around the world call in with a few questions of their own.

IT: [00:02:01] Sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue. I think you might know that address, also known as the White House.

IT: [00:02:08] This was Wednesday morning, right after the election and the first person we went to talk to is Kimberly Halkett who's our White House correspondent. She's been covering Trump since the lead up to the 2016 election and she's really well-placed to help us understand what this split legislature means for the president.

IT: [00:02:30] Our producers Graelyn, Kyana and I were hoping to talk to Kimberly where she spends a lot of her days reporting from: the front lawn of the White House. But the Secret Service and Vice President Mike Pence had other ideas.

Kyana Moghadam: [00:02:43] This is us being pushed off the avenue by some very intense police on bicycles.

IT: [00:02:48] The vice president's motorcade was about to arrive, so Kimberly and senior White House producer Chris Sheridan met us around the block.

Chris Sheridan: [00:02:56] Yeah, that's him. See there, it's a limo with a white flag on it. It's the vice president's flag on the left side there of the front of the car.

Kimberly Halkett: [00:03:04] And this is what we see every single day. And then it repeats itself at the end of the day as well when he goes home.

IT: [00:03:10] You'd think they'd get him a condo nearby. Two bedroom two bath.

IT: [00:03:14] Pence was headed to the White House for a press conference with Trump. Kimberly was on her way there when we caught her.

KH: [00:03:21] The Republican Party and certainly Donald Trump is now branding this as a success. Clearly it wasn't. He lost the House of Representatives. But I don't think the losses were the grim losses that many of the polls were predicting and that this White House was actually bracing for.

IT: [00:03:35] When you look at the Trump presidency, at least taking a step back and maybe from the perspective of people from around the world, you know they see this breathless coverage of scandals and controversies, many of them self-inflicted at times from this administration. And some of the questions some people have, is how does this president, who is so unlike any president, certainly not like his predecessor Barack Obama, how is he able to have such a bedrock of support in this country?

KH: [00:04:11] There is an urban rural divide in this country which we've seen around the world. Washington hasn't done a great job of remembering the people that don't have access to hospitals, don't have access to decent education because they can't attract teachers to rural areas. For the first time maybe since the Kennedy era, these people have somebody at least acknowledging them in great numbers. But the other thing I think is that there is a significant voting population here in this country that doesn't like Donald Trump, wishes he would be presidential, loathes his rhetoric, but likes his policies. And so you'd hear about the silent majority. It exists. It may not be as big as it was in 2016, but it's still there. People that would never admit publicly they like Donald Trump but will in the privacy of the voting booth support him and the candidates he advocates for.

IT: [00:05:08] Russia of course is a curious feature of this presidency. On the one hand many view Russia as this hostile power who meddled in U.S. elections and yet we have a president who in spite of all of that seems to be kind of okay with the Russian president and in some ways almost likes him.

KH: [00:05:30] I think we just have to continue to talk about the relationship. This is a president that has been overwhelmingly reluctant to push back on Russia, to push back on Vladimir Putin's power. And while there has been action that has been taken by this White House, many people have felt it didn't go far enough. I think we have to look back to the Helsinki press conference where he appeared alongside Vladimir Putin. Many people consider that an embarrassment. They felt like this was the president's opportunity to project the power that he says he wields internationally. And we didn't see that.

IT: [00:06:10] Final thought. As we look ahead, the president has two years. Where do you see things going for the next two years? We do now have a very visible divide at least from a government point of view. His power has been somewhat checked. Where do you see this president going in the next two years?

KH: [00:06:26] I think we're going to see at minimum extensive hearings as the House Democrats try to shine a light on the president's business dealings, which have not been transparent to the American public. Congress will be mired in investigations instead of those bread and butter issues that would really improve lives. So I think that what we're going to see is absolute gridlock and that's probably the saddest part of all of this. Donald Trump was elected because people were frustrated with a broken Washington. He is not- he did not create this mess. He's he's a product of the mess. And unfortunately I don't see that changing.

KH: [00:07:10] And so that might be the saddest thing of all, in all of this, is that there is real suffering in this country. There is, despite the enormous wealth in this country, there is severe poverty in this country. The kind that will just break your heart and bring tears to your eyes walking amongst us. And the other sad thing about all of this, this is the most expensive election in U.S. history. Some five billion dollars. Think about the lives that- I almost get teary when I talk about it, I'm a mom.

KH: [00:07:40] Think about the lives that could be changed from that. Just, you know, the schools, the teachers that could get paid, the kids that could have lunch, the health care that people could have, the prescription drugs that people would finally be able to afford. This country has got its priorities all messed up. And that didn't change if anything it got worse. I don't know why I'm crying about it but you know it's hard not to get emotional when you see all of this all the time. Because that might be the overlooked headline.

IT: [00:08:23] Okay, next stop. From the White House, we headed to Capitol Hill to talk to Rosalind Jordan. She's Al Jazeera's State Department correspondent. We found her on a really noisy street corner within sight of the Capitol dome.

Graelyn Brashear: [00:08:40] All right. Thank you so much.

Rosiland Jordan: [00:08:45] I'm Rosiland Jordan, everyone calls me Ros. Basically I kind of do a little bit of everything. All foreign policy, some military policy, but today it's all politics.

IT: [00:08:58] So let's talk about how this is going to play out in real terms for President Donald Trump. Donald Trump who of course you know came into office shocking a lot of the world including a lot of Americans at the time. And you know he had this sort of abrupt sort of you know repudiation of major treaties. You know his threat of tariffs on allies. His broad retreat from you know the international system. Is this a rejection of that? Or what, what does this result say?

RJ: [00:09:25] You know if I were a Washington insider I would say, "Oh absolutely this election was a rejection of that world view." That the United States is you know pulling away from its traditional role as the leader of the free world and you know being engaged and supportive of other countries' abilities to democratize and improve rights for women and you know improve global health and get rid of nuclear weapons and stop global warming and on and on and on. I'm also a realist. So really, the ordinary American doesn't really care about the world.

RJ: [00:10:08] There is a resonance, unfortunately, when Donald Trump says, why should we be spending so much money on other countries when people here are in need. The foreign policy budget, the State Department budget and USAID budget combined are less than one half of one percent of the U.S. federal budget. The defense budget, 700 billion dollars for fiscal year 19 and the State Department can't even get a fraction of that money. And even if the State Department were wiped out tomorrow and all of those people let go, that money would not magically find its way into local schools or into fixing potholes or into improving health care or drug treatment programs.

GB: [00:11:03] Let's go ahead and play the question from Zein. Let's get to Iran. So, Zein Bazravi sent us a question and we're going to play it for you.

Zein Bazravi: [00:11:12] Hi it's Zein Bazravi in Tehran and I guess what a lot of people here are asking is, is there any American leader that can come to power that can take over from Trump? And as far as Iran is concerned, take over and fix the things that he's broken. Fix the relationship between Iran and the United States.

RJ: [00:11:32] You know what that is a fantastic question from Zein. It's going to take, I think, more than one president. And I think it's going to take more than one president serving for eight years, or two terms. I think that it's going to require also getting more people into the U.S. Senate who actually are interested in global affairs who are willing to ask the question, why does the U.S. body politic still hold this animosity towards Iran. Yes, the hostage crisis happened in 1979. Okay, it was resolved hours before Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. Why does the U.S. still hold Iran out to be the bogeyman when there are other countries that one could argue pose as much of a national security threat to the U.S. as Tehran does?

RJ: [00:12:34] Does Pakistan have the US's best interests at heart? Does Turkey have the U.S.'s best interest at heart? Does China? Just three countries I'm not picking on them by any means. I think what's probably even more serious, if we like to have our allies from you know those countries that behave like us politically, wow has he really made a mess of things with Western Europe. And if Brexit does actually happen, I don't know how the next president will be able to navigate a political and economic relationship with an independent United Kingdom as well as with the 27 remaining members of the EU unless they decide to go ahead and you know sneak in Macedonia under cover of night or something.

RJ: [00:13:23] So it's just going to take more than one president. And I just think that it's, it's just going to be a mess probably 25 30 years before we return to what it was at the end of Barack Obama's second term in office.

IT: [00:13:41] Final thought, and looking forward, where do you see where do you see things going? Given the fact that the president now, for the first time in his time as president, has a check in a way that he hasn't before.

RJ: [00:13:55] Well, my super hot take is, is that for all the haters out there, if you don't like the results of the- of Tuesday's midterm elections, I would like to hear from you every single day between now and 2020 on what you have been doing to improve the political process in the United States. Because I've seen already too many stories, and too many Facebook posts, and too many Twitter complaints about we didn't win everything we wanted, or we didn't do enough or we didn't get enough. That's, come on. It's not a spectator sport. You get dirty, get involved. And if Congress doesn't like something, it can shut it down.

IT: [00:14:35] Rosiland Jordan, thank you very much.

RJ: [00:14:37] Thank you.

IT: [00:14:40] After talking to Ros, we headed back to the Al Jazeera newsroom to talk to Patty Culhane.

Patty Cullhane: [00:14:49] I'm a correspondent here at Al Jazeera English.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:14:51] She grew up in the Midwest and has been covering Washington for ages, from all angles. Let's talk about what this means for the world. How, how does this shift, if you will, how is this going to affect how he pursues his sort of America first agenda?

PC: [00:15:10] Well the way the founders intended foreign policy to work is not the way it actually works in practice now. The president is much more powerful I think than the founders expected him to be. The lower house has the power of the purse. So they can fund certain priorities. But there's all sorts of ways the executive has come up with to get around any sort of limitations they put on him with that. Let's think about North Korea. The president had his summit, sent out a tweet, "We're all good. Issue solved. Sleep well people." I think that was basically the tweet.

PC: [00:15:46] So in conservative media the message was, "Oh it's good, we're good. The whole issue is solved." Which obviously, nothing changed. So now what the Congress can do, the Democrats if they choose to, and I'm not saying that they will because foreign policy is not driving this country right now. If they chose to they could have a hearing on foreign relations, bring up Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, bring up the Secretary of Defense, and highlight the fact that nothing's actually changed. Again right now the president has been able to set his narrative completely unchecked. There's been no one with a loud enough microphone to be like, "That's not true. That's a lie. You're making that up." The Democrats can now do that by calling his own people under oath before them and making them tell the truth.

IT: [00:16:35] Okay we have a question for you and this is coming from our China correspondent. Here it is.

Adrian Brown: [00:16:41] Well this is Adrian Brown in Shanghai. I think China does have many questions right now. Well yes, a Democrat controlled House is better than a Republican held one from their perspective. But, and this is one for my colleagues in Washington, are we going to see a less aggressive Trump? A more chastened President Trump when he meets President Xi Jinping at G 20 later this month? That's going to be the test.

PC: [00:17:10] Well the Trump they, that the leaders meet is never the same Trump that the world sees, right. I mean he doesn't fire people in person. He hates conflict in person. He does it behind their back. He likes to talk about how he's got this great relationship with the Chinese leader. But Trump is singularly focused on trade deals. It colors everything. Every decision he makes. He will not hear anyone that says the trade war with China is bad. He thinks it's, this is what you do. You double down, you make them hurt so much that they come to the table and they capitulate.

PC: [00:17:45] Let's think about what we know about the Chinese leader. How likely is he going to come groveling to President Trump and say, "Please I'm really worried about my next election." Not going to happen. So no, Donald Trump will not be chastened by this result. He's going to see this as a victory. He's going to see this as a vindication of his policies. The other thing to keep in mind and I think we can't overstate the role the economy had in this election. The economy is really good right now. If you look at the numbers, not necessarily how people's lives are on a day to day basis, but if you look at the numbers, there are jobs. Every economic forecast, I was reading the IMF forecasts, every economic forecast says this is temporary. And every forecast says 2019 will be a good year, 2020 not so much.

PC: [00:18:37] There is growing concern that there is a bubble. We don't- a lot of people think it's over leverage debt and what- all sorts of economic things, but I want you to imagine the financial crisis if it happened now with who's in power now. Right now the farmers are sticking with him. They do feel that there needs to be a change with China. China has a lot more leverage than people are giving them credit for. They don't need to buy soybeans from Iowa. They don't. And eventually those soybeans, they rot if they're not sold. Eventually, when you can't buy a tractor. And when you can't go on vacation. And you can't eventually pay your phone bill. You are going to turn against the president.

IT: [00:19:21] On a personal note, you've covered a number of White Houses, you've covered farmers and fields in Iowa. You're obviously American, you have a vested interest in the future of this this country, given the results of this election and just sort of the current mood in the country generally, what's your sort of personal feeling and personal view of where America is at right now and where we're going in the next two years of the Trump presidency or even beyond that?

PC: [00:19:52] I think America is dealing with its original sin. I think we are, right now, deciding who we want to be as a country. And one side's going to win. One thing I look to are the women. If you think about this, we're this advanced country and women are supposedly equal and we get more college degrees and more advanced degrees than men, but yet we still make less- in every profession we make less than men. And they're represented, women are represented at like 20 percent level in Congress, and they're not in governorships and not in legislatures and not in city councils and not in school boards. And there is one concrete thing I've seen out of the Trump presidency is that he's making feminism great again. And not in the way I think he intended.

PC: [00:20:46] I woke up this morning thinking about the Parkland students in Florida. They did that March for our Lives. They empowered a movement, it was amazing. They were so measured. And these men would show up with AR15s to their rallies as they traveled the country. And they didn't cower in fear. They walked out to these men who have AR15s and they say, "Let me talk with you about what I want to do." And they tend to find agreement with them. So these kids put their lives on hold. They marched on Washington. They marched across the country and they woke up today with an NRA backed governor and an NRA backed senator. How do they go on? That's the question. If they do go on, then you have your answer. And you know where this country goes.

PC: [00:21:39] Look at the numbers of women who are now going to be in Congress. Look at the diversity. If women continue to run like never before. Minorities continue to run like never before. Then eventually we become a representative government because right now it isn't. If you make a representative government, is that a better government? I think so. We're really far away from it, but this is the first giant step I've seen towards breaking the white patriarchy in this country. And it was done peacefully at the ballot.

IT: [00:22:14] Patty, thank you.

PC: [00:22:16] My pleasure.

IT: [00:22:24] That's it for us this week on The Take. There's a link in the show description of this episode. It's for a survey where you can tell us your thoughts on the show. It's mostly multiple choice, I swear.

IT: [00:22:35] Graelyn Brashear and Kyana Moghadam produced this episode. They had production help from Morgan Waters, Jasmin Baoumy, Jordan Marie Bailey, and me, Imtiaz Tyab. The sound designer was Ian Coss. Special thanks to Kimberly Hallket, Rosiland Jordan, Patty Culhane, Chris Sheridan, Liz Brown, Kira Rockwell, Hida Fouladvand, Zein Basravi, Step Vassen, Adrian Brown and Manuel Rapalo. We'll be back next week.