Just hours before President Donald Trump’s defensive and lie-packed Oval Office speech demanding money for a border wall before he allows the government to reopen, Democrats in the Senate did something that progressives have urged them to do since day one of the Trump presidency. Led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, they launched a blockade to stop any votes unrelated to resolving the shutdown from proceeding in the Senate.
There’ll be no business as usual, they said, as long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow votes on the funding bills passed by the House this month, even though the Senate passed similar legislation unanimously last month. McConnell seemed shocked by his colleagues’ hardball tactics — the kind of thing he would do, but hadn’t expected of Democrats — and feebly complained, “Now they want to shut down the Senate.”
Shortly after that, Trump gave his pathetic, lackluster speech.
Democrats, having taken control of the House after November’s blue wave, are suddenly much less afraid. And they’re listening to the base that elected them, which is demanding that they hold firm and hit hard.
At the same time, Trump not only backed himself into a corner with the shutdown, but his belligerence seems to have inspired a dissipation of the “both sides” impulse in much of the media coverage. One Politico story this week explained “How Trump Got Bad At Twitter” ― something a lot of us needed no convincing about, but which marked a turning point in Beltway media reporting of Trump as having some sort of magical powers on social media. Even some Fox News hosts are breaking with the president’s narrative of events.
Still, it was a show of sheer cowardice on the part of the broadcast television networks, fearful of Trump’s smears according to at least one TV executive who texted CNN media critic Brian Stelter, that they pre-empted programming Tuesday for nothing but a political screed packed with the same old lies and bigotry. Trump himself, according to The New York Times, told TV anchors at an off-the-record lunch that he didn’t have the passion to deliver that speech and didn’t think it would change any minds.
Democrats demanded — and got — equal time. Although they didn’t say anything new or make for exciting television themselves, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer didn’t have much heavy lifting to do. They just calmly pointed out that Trump was using an Oval Office address for political reasons and focused on the workers whose lives have been plunged into chaos by the president’s demand.
“Most presidents have used Oval Office addresses for noble purposes,” Schumer said. “This president just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave her own powerful response on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show in an interview that quickly went viral. Just two nights earlier, on “60 Minutes,” Ocasio-Cortez had clearly explained there’s “no question” Trump is a racist — the kind of forthright declaration from Democrats for which progressives have yearned. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, hitting the campaign trail after having announced her likely run for the presidency, is going toe to toe with Trump, setting the standard for 2020 presidential candidates. And Rep. Rashida Tlaib remained unapologetic after saying that Democrats were going to “impeach the motherfucker.”
None of the attacks from right-wing pundits and Republicans against Democrats for these statements and actions seem to be resonating. And in the aftermath of Trump’s address, there was a distinct lack of chatter from his typically noisy defenders online and on TV.
Democrats are voting again on bills to reopen the government (and they will continue to do so), daring Republicans in the House to stick with Trump. Seven of them broke with the GOP on last week’s vote, even as many more worry about 2020 and see polls showing that Americans blame the shutdown on Trump.
Trump may still declare a national emergency, but the fact that he didn’t do so in his Oval Office speech showed that he has blinked, at least for the moment. After all the buildup, he looked like a man who’d been hemmed in, as even conservative legal analysts and GOP senators warned against invoking emergency powers. In the House, it appeared there might be a revolt among Republicans if Trump went forward with a national emergency declaration, as Armed Services Committee members expressed concern at the thought of using Department of Defense funds to build the wall.
And more Republicans in the Senate are calling for an end to the shutdown without money for a border wall. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia have joined Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado.
The pressure on McConnell, on House Republicans and on Trump will only grow, as Democrats have the public solidly behind them. Rather than bringing more people to his side, Trump’s stilted speech looks to have backfired or, at best, changed nothing. Even Ann Coulter, one of the right-wing pundits who pressured Trump into shutting down the government, called his planned visit to the southern border on Thursday “beyond moronic.”
Meanwhile, the Russia investigation is back in the spotlight, with the bombshell news that special counsel Robert Mueller believes Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort gave polling data to a Russian operative connected to Russian intelligence. Also on Tuesday, the Russian attorney who infamously met with Manafort, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. in Trump Tower in 2016 was indicted in an unrelated money-laundering case that suggests she was a top Kremlin envoy, not merely an informant.
Both stories, breaking on the same day as Trump’s speech, were a reminder of what’s brewing underneath all of the shutdown mania. No matter how much Trump tries to create a non-existent “crisis” on the border, his efforts aren’t enough to erase the fact that his own presidency is in dire crisis right now.
Michelangelo Signorile is a HuffPost editor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter at @MSignorile.