Donald Trump is spending the festive season as he did much of the year, sparking chaos and raising concerns in the capital and around the world about his impulsive behaviour and boiling with frustration as he barges right up to the limits on his power.
One reason for his fury: A favourite barometer of his own success has been stripped away by days of savage losses on the markets. In a shortened Christmas Eve session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled more than 600 points after a bizarre attempt by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday to calm investors by consulting with the CEOs of top banks backfired. Losses were compounded by another of Trump’s Twitter attacks on the Federal Reserve — following revelations that he has asked if he can legally fire the independent central bank’s chairman, Jerome Powell.
The Dow fell 2.91% and the S&P 500 dipped 2.71% in the biggest Christmas Eve declines in the two indices’ history. The slump came after the stocks last week had their worst week since the Great Recession a decade ago, and the last time the market fell so far in December was in 1931, during the Great Depression.
Trump turns to Twitter while “all alone” in the White House
While many Americans gathered with their families and with his vacation to the “Winter White House” at Mar-a-Lago iced by the shutdown, the President spent the day at the White House blasting critics — including Democrats who have refused his demands for $5 billion in funding for his border wall in a standoff that shuttered the government at midnight on Friday.
“I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security,” Trump wrote in what may have been a tongue in cheek tone in his 10th tweet of the day.
I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security. At some point the Democrats not wanting to make a deal will cost our Country more money than the Border Wall we are all talking about. Crazy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2018
Trump was due to be rejoined for Christmas Day by first lady Melania Trump, who had already decamped to Florida before the shutdown took hold.
The US President also lashed out Brett McGurk, his special envoy for eradicating ISIS, who followed Defense Secretary James Mattis by resigning in protest at Trump’s hurriedly announced Syria withdrawal. He hit out at “Little Bob Corker,” the outgoing Tennessee senator who has criticized him over Syria and the shutdown. He also insisted he did like allies—but said many took advantage of the US “both in ‘Military Protection and Trade…’ “
A senior administration official told CNN’s Jim Sciutto that national security decision-making has “basically stopped working” and decisions are “made on a whim on phone calls.” The official added the Syria withdrawal was “a complete reversal” and it was done “without deliberation, no consideration of risks.”
American allies and partners are “shocked and totally bewildered” and the Syrian Democratic Forces “don’t believe this is happening,” the official said.
It all added up to a feeling of a White House that is hurtling out of control and a President who is becoming increasingly emotional and vexed at a time when he faces mounting legal and political pressure from special counsel Robert Mueller. He is also days away from a new era of punishing Democratic oversight when the new Congress convenes in early January.
The loss of Mattis —who was seen around the world as a check on Trump’s erratic national security decision-making —has raised anxiety about his presidency to previously unmatched levels.
Of course, many Trump supporters voted for disruption and to rattle the Washington establishment when they sent him to the White House so are likely to be less concerned than Washington insiders about the febrile Christmas mood.
But the President’s irascible temper is also detracting from his top achievements at the end of the year, including low unemployment and a strong economy despite market turmoil. The passage of a groundbreaking criminal justice bill has also been overshadowed and there is little talk about his most enduring legacy win —the new majority he and the Senate GOP engineered on the Supreme Court.
He seemed to have his loyal base in mind by engineering a shutdown drama that appears to have no easy exits, but allows him to make a political stand cheered on by the conservative media. “AMERICA IS RESPECTED AGAIN!” he tweeted at one point on Monday, likely with those voters in mind.
AMERICA IS RESPECTED AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2018
“Hunker down like a jackass in a hailstorm”
But the frenetic Christmas Eve spectacle was stunning even by Trump’s standards, and prompted the two top Democratic leaders, the likely House speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, to issue a joint statement.
“It’s Christmas Eve and President Trump is plunging the country into chaos. The stock market is tanking and the president is waging a personal war on the Federal Reserve — after he just fired the Secretary of Defense,” the statement said.
As the shutdown lumbered through its third day, with no end in sight, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas arrived to gavel in the chamber for a pro-forma session that only exemplified the lack of action between the White House and Democrats towards a resolution. He resorted to quoting the earthy wisdom of a former Senate majority leader and President to capture the sense of futility and political dislocation.
“LBJ said sometimes you just have to hunker down like a jackass in a hailstorm and just take it. That’s about where we are,” he said.
But in one sign that the festive spirit can triumph over Washington’s humbug, the National Parks Service announced the reopening of the National Christmas Tree, thanks to support from the National Park Foundation —a group of philanthropic organizations and donors.
The popular Yuletide tourist spot had been closed after a man tried to climb the tree and damaged it. The government shutdown then prevented the National Park Service from reopening it.
The shutdown is the third this year and has sent hundreds of thousands of federal employees home for Christmas unsure about their upcoming paychecks.
At the same time, the stock market is careening south with much of the blame being put on the confusion coming from Washington.
Mnunchin has had to reassure investors Trump won’t fire Powell and left major bank CEOs “totally baffled” with a weekend call asking them about the state of their businesses. More criticism from Trump toward the Fed sent markets reeling Monday, as the Dow closed down 653 points before shutting up shop early for Christmas Eve.
Mnuchin’s intervention was just the latest development that sparked uncertainty in the days running up to the holiday.
A surprise announcement that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery for cancerous growths on her lung added to the frenetic mood in Washington, as the Supreme Court dealt a blow to Trump by knocking back his new restrictions on asylum seekers who cross the southern border.
And more mystery is brewing in the highest court in the land after Chief Justice John Roberts temporarily paused an order holding an unnamed, foreign-government owned company in contempt over a court case related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
It all adds up to a Christmas that is feeling less and less merry and bright on Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street.