House Speaker, Ukraine War, Border Wall: Trump’s Influence Reaches a Post-Presidency Peak

From a House leadership contest to the southwestern border and a foreign war, Donald J. Trump’s influence this week seemed to pervade the nation’s politics more than it has since the first weeks after his exit from the White House.

Not since Jan. 27, 2021, when Representative Kevin McCarthy flew to Mar-a-Lago to mend the rift with Mr. Trump, has the former president’s sway been as widespread or as palpable.

Mr. Trump’s successor, President Biden, resumed construction of a border wall that will always be stamped with Mr. Trump’s name and restarted deporting Venezuelan migrants, following a hiatus when the Biden administration extended protective status for those fleeing that devastated nation.

The House Republican Conference launched its search for a new speaker following the historic vanquishing of the last one, Mr. McCarthy, and again, Mr. Trump was calling the shots. Some House Republicans even suggested handing the gavel to their unofficial leader, Mr. Trump, before he stepped in to try to anoint Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, with an effusive endorsement that dwelt heavily on the congressman’s high school and college wrestling records.

Lurking next is mid-November, when funding for the federal government expires and Mr. Trump’s policy demands will overtake the debate in Congress: halting U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, stiffening border controls and neutering the Justice Department as it pursues felony prosecutions that threaten Mr. Trump’s grip on the reins of his party — and also his freedom.

U.S. Border Patrol agents patrolling for migrants in La Grulla, Texas, in 2017. Starr County, where La Grulla is located, is where 20 miles of wall are to be built.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

That a twice-impeached, quadruply indicted former president is exercising this much influence is baffling to historians far more used to defeated or disgraced politicians fading into obscurity. David Blight, a professor at Yale University who specializes in the dissolution of American unity before the Civil War, struggled for a precedent.

“Let’s think of Nixon: What influence did he really have in Washington? He got on TV, did the Frost interviews, but real influence on the Republican Party? No. They tried to become something other than the Nixon Party,” Mr. Blight said.

“I don’t know of another analogy except in authoritarian regimes elsewhere,” he concluded, pointing to on-again, off-again dictatorships in Africa and South America and to the attempted returns of Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte.

But an extraordinary vacuum of leadership has given the former president an in, and he has taken it with zeal. The Republican speaker’s chair is vacant, swept clean by internecine conflict. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is diminished by age, health issues and a Senate Republican Conference increasingly willing to challenge his authority.

And the Democrats, led by an aging and soft-spoken president who is temperamentally Mr. Trump’s opposite, are facing issues they cannot solve on their own but without partners across the aisle to help address, including a broken immigration system, the stalled war in Ukraine, crime, labor unrest and economic uncertainty.

The White House has struggled to control the narrative on recent events — Mr. Biden insisted, for instance, that his administration’s decision to waive more than 20 federal laws and regulations and resume construction of a border wall was merely the fulfillment of a legally binding appropriation signed into law in 2019 — even as his secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, attested in writing to “an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States.”

President Joe Biden resumed construction of a border wall that will always be stamped with Mr. Trump’s name and restarted deporting Venezuelan migrants, leading to a struggle to control the narrative on recent events.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

But Mr. Trump’s presence looms undeniably large. A chorus on the right embraced the border decision, claiming “Trump was right” as it still sank in among Democrats. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a leading voice on the Democratic left, dismissed the excuse that the administration was somehow “required to expand construction of the border wall.”

“The president needs to take responsibility for this decision and reverse course,” she wrote Thursday evening.

Immigrant rights groups are beginning to speak out, using the same accusations of cruelty and callousness toward Mr. Biden that they routinely used against Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Jordan may have given the combative Ohio Republican an edge over the House majority leader, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, in his quest for the speakership, but Mr. Jordan still found himself on Fox News praising Mr. Trump as the best president of his lifetime and the likely next president, to head off suggestions from colleagues that the former president would be a better leader for the House.

All of this was extraordinary for a man who is, at this very moment, on civil trial in New York for business fraud, whose co-defendants go on trial in Fulton County, Ga., within weeks on charges that they conspired with him to overturn a presidential election, and whose lawyers are maneuvering to delay or dismiss three felony trials, any of which could put him behind bars.

His own former lawyer, Ty Cobb, told a panel at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics this week that Mr. Trump has no legal defense in the federal cases he faces. And, Mr. Cobb added, given federal sentencing guidelines, “a judge is going to have to depart pretty aggressively, under difficult circumstances, if Trump’s convicted, to keep him out of jail.”

Yet turmoil has always been an asset to Mr. Trump, a cauldron into which he has always been more than willing to plunge.

He did nothing to save Mr. McCarthy, showing no appreciation for the man he once called “my Kevin,” and who rescued him at perhaps his darkest political moment, when even Mr. McConnell was suggesting Mr. Trump face criminal charges for a Capitol riot he was “practically and morally responsible for provoking.” The former president basked briefly in the accolades of his House Republican acolytes who floated his name for speaker before ending such talk with his endorsement of Mr. Jordan.

Kevin McCarthy addressed reporters after being ousted as speaker on Tuesday.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

For now, much of this is only theater. But when a stopgap spending bill expires in mid-November, fealty to Mr. Trump will have real consequences. The next speaker will still be facing a Democratic Senate and president, but will also face the impossible demands dictated by Mr. Trump to his loyal troops in the House.

As the migrant crisis worsens in Democratic cities, Mr. Biden could well be pushed further in Mr. Trump’s direction on new border controls. New York Mayor Eric Adams traveled to Mexico this week with a message to deter migrants from coming to the United States. Chicago’s young and liberal mayor, Brandon Johnson, said Wednesday he would also travel to see the porous frontier with Mexico “firsthand,” as migrant buses reach his city by the dozen each day.

Mr. Trump’s influence could also imperil Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia.

The 45-day measure to keep the government open dropped additional military aid to Ukraine, and supporters of such aid will be hard-pressed to resume the flow through the next spending measures. Mr. Trump’s “America First” mantra was long dismissed by critics as an isolationism that leaned the country toward Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

Ending American assistance to a Ukraine battling an invading army from Moscow would be the apotheosis of Trumpist foreign policy — and could be brought about even without Mr. Trump in the White House.

But for all those possible Republican victories, Mr. Trump’s most pressing personal demand — defunding the prosecutions of him — almost certainly cannot be met, raising once again the prospect of a pointless government shutdown.

At some point, Republicans in Washington may have to choose between Mr. Trump and governance.

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