On Trump's big applause line, the sound of silence was stunning

Analysis: The state of the president's union with Republicans in Congress is ... complicated.
Image: Donald Trump
Instead of applause, Trump's investigations pushback was met with steely silence.Carolyn Kaster / AP

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told Congress on Tuesday that the economy would crash and no policy work could be done if lawmakers investigate his administration or stand in the way of his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria.

The lines, delivered early in his State of the Union address, were so clearly designed to draw cheers from his Republican allies that they even included a rhyme scheme.

"An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations," he said, eliciting an ovation from the GOP.

But then, as he asserted himself further on matters of war and the separation of powers, Trump went a bit too far.

"If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation," he said. "It just doesn't work that way!"

Instead of applause, Trump was met at first with a brief moment of lightly scattered laughter and a few lonely claps — and then came steely silence as the president stood at the lectern looking at lawmakers.

Amid Trump's nearly 5,200 words Tuesday night, that absence of sound spoke loudest. It represented a growing and increasingly fraught disconnect between the president and Congress on two issues that figure to factor prominently in his two-year quest for re-election. And, more broadly, it demonstrated again that the president no longer has the kind of command over GOP foot soldiers in Congress than he once enjoyed.

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Just this week, the Senate voted 70-26 on a nonbinding amendment opposing a "precipitous withdrawal" from either Afghanistan or Syria — a reaction to Trump's plans to bring troops home from both countries — and several Republicans have said they hope the president does not try to execute an end-run around Congress to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

While Trump promised Tuesday that "I'll get it built," Republicans chose not to fund the wall when they controlled the House and Senate in the last Congress.

And on the heels of Trump slamming top intelligence officials whose testimony on Capitol Hill has contradicted his claims about Iran cheating on the nuclear deal from which he withdrew the U.S., the appetite among lawmakers to heed his call to back down on their oversight role seems to be minimal.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said Tuesday night that Trump is mixed up about Congress' role.

"The president seems to believe that because Congress must legislate, we should not investigate," Cummings said in a statement. "Of course, the Constitution requires us to do both. That is exactly how it works."

For Trump, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria represents the delivery of a campaign promise — and a potentially powerful plank in his re-election platform.

"As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach," he said. "Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

That line, which reflects the sentiments of many voters, including many Democrats, drew mild applause in the chamber.

Of Afghanistan, he said, "We do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace ... it's time."

In 2016 and again now, Trump has bet that the voting public is at odds with politicians in Washington about continued U.S. engagement in foreign wars. One data point that supports that theory: when the Senate voted this week to announce its opposition to hasty withdrawals, most of the Democrats running for president or considering bids voted against the amendment and, essentially, with Trump.

The amendment was nothing more than a policy statement — it didn't restrict Trump in any way — but the fact that the Republican-led Senate chose to vote on it demonstrated an increased willingness among GOP lawmakers to make public their disagreements with the president.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, one of the Democrats weighing a bid for the presidency, criticized Trump's methods but not his decision to move toward bringing troops home.

"The president’s decision-making process about troop levels in Afghanistan and Syria has been reckless and wildly inconsistent," he said after the vote. "But the president’s failure to construct a coherent foreign policy doesn’t mean that the right answer is for U.S. troops to stay deployed overseas with no end in sight."

The bigger issue for Trump could be the wide-ranging investigations into his administration taking place mostly on the Democratic-led House side of the Capitol — the ones he referenced high in his address.

Some Democrats want to impeach him. But even short of investigations by the House — or special counsel Robert Mueller finding impeachable offenses related to his campaign's connections to Russia or obstruction of justice — probes into the conduct of executive branch agencies and the White House could hurt his re-election effort.

After two years of a raucous GOP defense of him in the House, the sound of silence Tuesday night was stunning.