(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

How will the US midterm elections results affect the Trump administration's foreign policy for 2019?

Tsuneo Watanabe
Senior Fellow, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation
SSDP Senior Associate

The 2018 US midterm elections attracted unprecedentedly wide attention and concerns not only domestically but also from the international community. The Trump administration may seem responsible for deranging the world order. The recent elections were considered to help discern the administration's policy direction for its remaining two-years until the presidential election in 2020, and also President Trump's reelection prospects.

The Republican Party succeeded in preserving its majority in the Senate by increasing its number of seats, whereas in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party secured a majority by adding as many as 40 seats. President Trump declared victory because of the Republican majority in the Senate. Undoubtedly, however, the Democrats' control of the House of Representatives will substantially change the situation from the last two years when Republicans dominated the majority in both houses. This paper will discuss the implications of the recent midterm elections that ended in a draw, and the impact of Democrats' control of the House of Representatives on President Trump himself and on his administration's policies for 2019.

What are the implications of the 2018 midterm elections?

The Republican Party secured its majority in the Senate by adding two seats to total 53 seats against the Democratic Party's 47 seats, while in the House of Representatives, Democrats won the majority by adding 40 seats to total 235 against Republican's 199 seats --- with an unconfirmed seat. In addition, in the gubernatorial elections, the Democratic Party got 23 governors elected, including seven new governors.

In many previous midterm elections after the inauguration of a new president, voters' sense of balance seems to have worked against the ruling party, which in many cases reduced its number of seats in both houses and lost the majority in many cases. As were the most recent cases from the Carter in 1978 to the Obama in 2010, except the George W. Bush administration in 2002, the then ruling parties lost seats in the first midterm elections after the inauguration of the new administrations. If seen this way, it may not be incorrect to regard the Republicans keeping the majority in the Senate as an election victory. Actually, after the midterm elections, President Trump lost no time in declaring victory. In the Senate, however, more Democratic senators faced reelection than Republicans, and since many of those reelection states were conservative states where Trump won in the 2016 presidential election, thus the Republican Party retained advantages there.

Normally, any President in the second year of his term would not spend time in helping the ruling party candidates in the midterm election campaign. Ready to subject himself to the judgement of voters, he is rather apt to evade criticism against his administration by detaching himself from the election campaign support --- or simply because he may be too busy with presidential work to spare time for that purpose. Things were different with President Trump. He actively helped Republican lawmakers, particularly senators, more than any Republican president did in the past. He must have wanted to keep the majority in the Senate at the very least, given that the odds were against Republican Congressmen. The increased Republican majority in the Senate has enabled President Trump to appoint his cabinet members at his will.

In order to disrupt the investigation led by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller into the Russia-gate scandal where the Trump camp and the Russian government allegedly conspired to hack and disclose Clinton camp information during the 2016 Presidential Election campaign, President Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions who was reluctant to exert negative pressure on the investigation. Instead, President Trump designated William Barr as Sessions' successor, who was known to have a negative opinion on the Mueller investigation. Republican dominance in the Senate allowed President Trump to execute this series of personnel replacements, because the Senate has authority to approve these presidential appointments.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, incumbents' superiority tends to be much more conspicuous than in the Senate. It was a great opportunity for the Democratic Party that a number of Republican incumbents retired who had contributed to the Republican dominance in the House of Representatives. A nationwide spread of support for the Democratic Party and its collection of election campaign funds exceeding those of the Republican Party --- fueled by antipathy toward President Trump --- resulted in the Democrats large victory in the election for the House of Representatives.

Looking at the nation-wide voting trends for the recent midterm elections, the Democratic Party, compared with the Republican Party, secured more votes from women, young people, racial minorities (black, Hispanic, and Asian people), sexual minorities represented by LGBT, urban and suburban residents, and highly educated white males. The current electoral division is in favor of Republican dominance due to the Republicans numerical superiority in terms of governors and state legislators. Given the long-term demographic dynamics, however, a long-term dominance of Democratic supporters is foreseeable.

What appealed most to female voters was the Brett Kavanaugh scandal. At a public hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee for approval of the presidential nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as a justice on the Supreme Court, Christine Ford testified that she was sexually harassed by Kavanaugh in her teens. Despite the fact that her testimony was credible, the Republican Party approved the nomination. This resulted in a strong sense of repulsion from female voters. On the contrary, the conservative voters seem to have expressed sympathy for Kavanaugh. Among Democratic senators in the conservative states, Senator Joseph Manchin III of West Virginia who approved Kavanaugh was reelected, while Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota failed to be elected.

The Democratic Party's move to the left supported by the newly growing supporters suggests a move diverging from the existing Democratic mainstream. Whether or not a Democratic candidate for the 2020 Presidential Election can consolidate the party and beat President Trump will attract more focus.

Many anti-Trump lawmakers such as Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, and Republican Senator Jeff Flake retired, and as a consequence, support for President Trump was consolidated chiefly in the Senate. This was a good result for President Trump, in the sense that it could prevent his removal by impeachment, which could be realized with the support of two thirds of Senators. However, at a victory press conference after the completion of the midterm elections, he argued strongly with a CNN reporter criticizing him, and went so far as to deprive the reporter of his White House press pass. We must be vigilant against the President's peculiar way of thinking and his mental state.

With Democratic domination in the House of Representatives, a Democratic-led committee there will pursue investigation into the possibility of impeachment of President Trump and into Russia-gate. The President is extremely vigilant of and anxious about developments in the House of Representatives. We need to consider that these developments will generate a significant impact on President Trump's behavior.

Also noteworthy is the result of the recent midterm elections in the four states in the rust belt (rusted industrial areas) --- Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, states which had been the key to Trump's victory in the 2016 Presidential Election. The Democratic Party won the Senate election in all of the four states, and in the gubernatorial election also, the Democratic Party won in three out of the four states except Ohio. The elections results are a matter of grave concern for President Trump who had won the 2016 presidential election in all of the four states. This could be an excuse for the Trump administration to pursue its protectionist policy.

In connection with the above-mentioned press conference, it deserves attention that in answering a question from a Japanese reporter, President Trump argued that the Japanese automobile market is closed and unfair, after telling him to "send a message to Shinzo."

Immediately before the midterm elections, President Trump dispatched military to the US-Mexico border to deal with refugee caravans from Honduras aiming to reach the border. President Trump's adamant attitude on the immigrants issue have had the effect of earning support from Republican conservatives. The outright political use of military called for objections and concerns of Democratic supporters and Republican elites, and left a stain in the long-standing US political-military relationship (civil-military relationship). The President's political use of the military has provided Democrats with an enduring source of criticism against him.

President Trump cornered by the Russia-gate scandal

Shortly after the midterm elections, President Trump dismissed Attorney General Sessions who had been pressed to resign. Sessions was a supporter of Donald Trump, as he was the first to express his support for Trump in the Republican Congress. Sessions wisely recused himself from the Russia-gate investigation led by Special Prosecutor Mueller, and asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to take over responsibility for overview of the investigation. President Trump condemned Sessions' behavior for lacking loyalty.

Furthermore, President Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker as Acting Attorney General, instead of the Deputy Attorney General or the Solicitor General, the number three person in the Department of Justice. Whitaker was Sessions' chief of staff, and well known loyalist to President Trump. President Trump also pressured Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to resign. Criticism rose that the appointment of Whitaker was unconstitutional. The President then appointed William Barr as Attorney General. Barr, like Whitaker, was critical of the Mueller investigation.

It will remain important in 2019 for President Trump to impede the investigation into Russia-gate. The media points out that this action by President Trump reminds us of Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre." On October 20, 1973, when the investigation into the Watergate scandal, where Nixon was alleged to have instructed the bugging of the offices of political opponents during the election campaign, was underway, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Both of them refused to do so and were forced to resign.

President Nixon dismissed the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General who refused to fire Special Prosecutor Cox and appointed Solicitor General Robert Bork, the number three person at the Department of Justice, as Acting Attorney General. Thus President Nixon made Bork fire Cox. Then the President mobilized the FBI staff and blocked the offices of Special Prosecutor, Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General; confiscated the documents relevant to the scandal; abolished the Special Federal Prosecutor's Office, and announced that all authorities concerning the investigation should be relegated to the Department of Justice.

However, such abject self-protection roused antipathy from US citizens. Part of the Republican Congress began to take an anti-Nixon position, and in 1974 the Judicial Committee of the House of Representatives decided on the impeachment of President Nixon on account of his obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. Thus, President Nixon was forced to resign.

President Trump's actions are unpredictable. Will he make a pre-emptive move to terminate the investigation, or will his blatant obstruction of the investigation as done by President Nixon invite opposition from the Congress and as a result expedite his impeachment? President Nixon seems to have taken self-destructive action after being psychologically cornered. President Trump seems to have psychological weak points, and it cannot be denied that he could go down a similar path as Nixon.

Continuing uncertainty in US foreign policy and trade policy

When considering the Trump administration's diplomacy, trade and security policy for 2019, we should note what has been revealed from the midterm election --- President Trump's attitude prioritizing his reelection in the 2020 Presidential Election and his increasingly self-centric way of administration. The administration's policy is suspected to give priority to the survival of President Trump himself rather than to the realization of US national interests. Most of the staff members who venture to criticize President Trump from anxiety about US national interests and democracy left the administration. The Republican Congress will be more obedient to the Trump administration's policy, while the Democratic Congress will increasingly sharpen its confrontation with the Trump administration.

Things foreseeable at this moment are: President Trump's arbitrariness will accelerate and the administration's confusion will become profound, and the US centripetal force will dwindle, adversely affecting the world order. On December 8, President Trump announced that Chief of Staff John Kelly would retire by the end of this year (2018). Kelly, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general, has brought discipline to the White House and attempted to control President Trump's behavior since his taking office in August 2017. However, since February 2018, Kelly began to lose President Trump's trust and failed to control the President's behavior.

Since then, President Trump has rarely listened to the opinions of regular advisors, promoted policies relying on his own intuition, and has given audience only to the people who support his intuition rather than criticize it. The result is a sequence of policies damaging the confidence in the United States and the world order the United States has so far built up, such as protectionism against not only China but also Japan and Europe, withdrawal from a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, and haphazard approach to North Korea.

The Nomination of a successor to Chief of Staff Kelly did not go smoothly. Conservative Republican Mick Mulvaney, who took office of Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the White House, was nominated to be acting Chief of Staff. Now that Kelly has failed, however, Mulvaney would not venture to undertake the "mission impossible" of controlling the President's behavior. Until now, President Trump has replaced many cabinet members and staff, but the newly appointed people were, also soon replaced by those who claim more loyalty to the President and who do not contradict or criticize him.

Concerns over US diplomacy and security are mounting. Defense James Mattis and Kelly fought together as marines in the battlefields of Iraq and pledged to resign together "when they quit the administration." But Kelly is quitting alone. In addition, Secretary of Defense James Mattis will also quit soon. The remarks that Mattis is alleged to have said, "The president acted like — and had the understanding of — a fifth or sixth grader," were disclosed. His position is now compromised. Unlike other government departments under the Trump administration, the Department of Defense has functioned realistically under the strong leadership of Mattis. If he left, the department would lose its leader, and the morale of the US army would plummet only to benefit challengers to the world order.

(Note: This article was written in December, 2018)

Moreover, on December 7, Special Prosecutor Mueller investigating Russia-gate announced that President Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen acknowledged his cooperation with the Russian authorities trying to influence the 2016 Presidential Election in favor of Trump. Since the Democratic Party will dominate the majority in the House of Representatives from 2019, Democrats could encourage the investigation into Russia-gate targeting President Trump himself and could impeach him, depending on the results of the investigation.

The situation where President Trump feels psychologically pressure could seriously affect the Trump administration. One of the reasons for the support for the unpredictable Trump administration is a strong US economy. However, due to the business cycle and the Federal Reserve Bank's interest rate hike, the US economy will likely recede in the latter half of 2019. These are additional concerns for President Trump. Leaders who feel uneasy about their own status tend to take extreme policies to shift voters' attention elsewhere. President Trump has so far overcome his scandals by diverting voters' attention by posting messages on Twitter and by other theatrical performances. Now the President is about to face a more serious situation in 2019 after most of the people who made reasonable arguments based on US national interests have left.

The largest concern for Japan is whether President Trump will escalate the US-China confrontation over the trade imbalance and future technological hegemony, or will resort to an unexpected "deal," giving priority to US economic growth to appeal to voters. Currently President Trump's arbitrariness becomes increasingly conspicuous; Japan will be compelled to prepare for the possibility of both of these extreme policies.

As for North Korea --- a source of similarly grave concern for Japan, will President Trump come up with some surprise from another US-North Korea summit meeting or will he exert severe military pressure once again on North Korea? No wonder whichever extreme policies will be taken.

While the Trump administration's policy uncertainty is mounting, what is apparent is that President Trump will give top priority to maintaining a strong US economy. Although, for example, the Trump administration resumed economic sanctions against Iran on November 5 as predicted in the wake of US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the administration temporarily exempted eight countries and regions including Japan, China, Korea and India from oil sanctions on Iran.

This is because, since the US relationship with Saudi Arabia has deteriorated over the murder of a dissident journalist, the United States cannot anticipate that Saudi Arabia agree to increase its crude oil production to compensate for the market demand for Iranian crude oil. Meanwhile, the exemption of China from sanctions over imports of Iranian oil contradicts with not only President Trump's determination to isolate Iran from the world oil market, but also the enforced US competition policy against China regarding trade, security and high-tech areas. The Trump administration seems to apprehend that crude oil price hike may cool down the global economy including particularly that of the United States. Since the highest priority for Trump is to be re-elected in 2020, maintaining US economic growth is prerequisite for him. Although the Trump administration has recently taken an increasingly tough stance on China, it is yet to see whether the United States will continue a trade war with China at the expense of its economy.

Between Japan and the United States, negotiations on "Trade Agreement on Goods (TAG)" agreed in September 2018 will begin in full. The aim of the United States is not tariffs on Japanese car imports, but the reduction of tariffs on US livestock products for the Japanese market. Japan is suggesting a tariff reduction to the level agreed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), from which President Trump eventually withdrew the United States. The bilateral negotiations will become difficult if the United States demands a still larger tariff reduction. As President Trump may deem it vital to be compatible with a bright future he promised for the Midwest voters mentioned earlier, the Trump administration's attitude toward the negotiations is unpredictable.

President Trump's behavior and policies are difficult to discern. Nonetheless, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is exceptionally compatible with President Trump, keeping closer contact with him than any other world leader doing. This is quite advantageous for Japan. As far as security is concerned, the maintenance of the world order without US involvement would be impossible to imagine in the foreseeable future. Aligning with the United States, therefore, Japan should take active efforts in collaboration with the countries concerned for the stabilization of the "Indo-Pacific Region." This will be a realistic option for Japan.

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