Washington, DC – From new indictments stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia meddling, to Trump’s surprise announcement to pull US troops out of Syria, 2018 was a year full of the expected, but even more so, the unexpected. And 2019, is set to be no different.
With the Democrats taking control of the House and Congress vowing to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) accountable for the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, here’s what to watch out for in 2019:
1. The Democrats are coming
The Republicans’ total control of the US Congress ends in January, 2019. That’s when a new batch of politicians will be sworn in, and many of them are not fans of US President Donald Trump. A November surge in Democratic voters kicked out many Republicans during the midterm Congressional elections.
As a result, the US House of Representatives will change hands, controlled by the Democratic party for the first time in eight years. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to take over the post again. She has promised to fight Trump on healthcare, immigration and his newly-signed deal on trade.
Since the majority party controls committee assignments, many Democrats have vowed to further investigate Trump’s alleged campaign ties to the Russian government as well as his business dealings. One of those people is Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff who will likely take over as chair of the powerful House Intelligence Committee.
Expect a newer, emboldened, progressive caucus as well within the Democratic party. Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is leading the charge for a so-called green new deal while Michigan Congresswoman-elect Rashida Tlaib will buck the traditional trip to Israel for newcomers and will instead lead a separate delegation to the occupied Palestinian territories.
2. The shutdown continues
Key parts of the US government shut down on December 22 after Trump refused to back down on his request for $5bn in funding for a wall on the US southern border, a demand Democrats vehemently oppose.
Some 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed or are working without pay.
Trump has threatened to wait “whatever it takes” to get the funding, taking to Twitter to blame the Democrats for the impasse and the shutdown.
Democrats, who support some level of funding for border security that does not include a wall, vowed to bring forth legislation to end the shutdown as soon as they take control of the House on Thursday, but they will still need support from the Republican-controlled Senate and Trump.
3. The 2020 race begins
Will Trump hold on to the White House in the 2020 election? That question has been asked since the start of his presidency. But in 2019, it will take on new meaning as contenders, hoping to replace him, announce their candidacies.
Expect a very crowded field on the Democratic side. The Democratic National Committee plans to open up their debates to a wider group, allowing relatively unknown candidates a national stage which should crowd the field even more.
Julian Castro, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary, has already indicated he’d like the job. So has Senator Elizabeth Warren. Some other potential contenders include former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
One dark horse candidate, whose name has been thrown around, is Beto O’Rourke who lost his Texas Senate bid to Republican Ted Cruz in 2018. His passionate speeches on everything from race to the economy endeared him to a young generation of voters and opened calls for a potential presidential run.
4. Saudi Arabia crackdown
Ever since the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October, Riyadh has faced a torrent of international criticism and backlash.
In spite of serious questions about whether or not Prince Mohammed was involved, Trump has backed the royal family.
But US legislators on both sides of the Congressional aisle have vowed to punish the Saudis in 2019. In December, US Senators passed a resolution unanimously blaming MBS for Khashoggi’s murder as well as a resolution to end US support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen.
Democrats, who will take over the house in 2019, are reportedly discussing a plan to push for an end to US weapons sales to the Saudis.
5. Trump and Kim to meet again
Trump’s first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June made history. No sitting US president had ever met a North Korean leader. In early 2019, he will meet him again, according to White House National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Since their first meeting, Trump has repeatedly declared North Korea’s nuclear missile programme over, one of his key goals in meeting Kim. But recent reports suggest otherwise.
According to a November review by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, North Korea expanded 13 bases capable of housing intercontinental ballistic missiles which have the potential of carrying nuclear warheads to the US.
6. Will Putin come to Washington?
In July, when the White House announced a pending invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the US president in Washington, DC, it caught Trump’s director of national intelligence by surprise.
Shortly after, the White House postponed the invitation to 2019. But with relations between Trump and Putin souring recently, that trip could be in doubt. In November, while on his way to a meeting of G20 leaders in Argentina, Trump reneged on a promise to hold bilateral talks with Putin at the summit, blaming a Russian clash with Ukrainian ships near Crimea.
But Trump’s also faced new questions about a deal he worked on during his 2016 presidential bid that included plans to build a Trump tower in Moscow.
The details of those discussions have surfaced during the FBI investigation into his campaign’s ties to the Kremlin, giving more reason for the president to distance himself from Putin.
In early December, a spokesman for the Kremlin said a Putin visit to Washington was out of the question in this current climate, suggesting the best option for a possible meet was on the sidelines of an international gathering.
7. Middle East peace plan
Ever since the US embassy in Israel moved to Jerusalem in May, the world has waited for Trump’s much-touted Middle East peace plan which would include some sort of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In September, while sitting next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, Trump stated he favoured a two-state solution, which would give the Palestinians their own country.
He has repeatedly vowed to release the details of the plan “soon” but it appears that won’t happen until at least 2019.
His outgoing United Nations Ambassador, Nikki Haley, teased the plan recently saying it will be different from previous US proposals and contain “thoughtful detail”.
Danny Danon, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said his government has been told to expect its unveiling early in the year so that it won’t influence Israeli elections.
8. Attorney general fight
In December, Trump officially announced his nominee to replace his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions who was let go in November after a tumultuous tenure. William Barr was the attorney general under President George H W Bush and Trump has praised him as “one of the most respected jurists in the country”. But don’t expect the 2019 Congressional confirmation hearings for Barr to go completely smooth.
It’s no secret Trump was extremely upset with Sessions because the Alabama Republican recused himself from overseeing the Justice Department probe into whether or not the Trump presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government. Trump wants the investigation to end even though it has netted multiple members of Trump’s campaign team as well as his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Barr has been critical of the investigation led by Special Counsel Mueller and would oversee it if confirmed. Democrats in the Senate are likely to grill him about whether or not he will serve the constitution or protect the president.
9. Fight over healthcare
Reforming the US healthcare system was US President Barack Obama’s signature achievement and President Trump has done everything he can to destroy it. In 2019, expect the fight over the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, to heat up once again.
Recently, a federal judge in Texas ruled that Obamacare is unconstitutional. The ruling follows years of lawsuits by Republican Governors and their supporters to try to dismantle Obamacare which forced Americans to get health insurance or face fines.
Republicans resent it primarily for that reason while Democrats say the law has made healthcare more accessible to more people. They also point to the fact it forces insurance companies to provide healthcare coverage to many people regardless of whether they have pre-existing conditions, like diabetes or cancer, something those companies previously used to deny coverage.
A number of US states, including New Jersey and California, are now planning to appeal the Texas judge’s ruling and some legal analysts believe the Obamacare fight could make its way to the Supreme Court.
10. Mueller digs in
In 2019, the world will learn more details into whether or not the 2016 Trump presidential campaign worked with the Kremlin to win the White House.
A Justice Department investigation, led by Mueller, has already netted a number of Trump’s close advisers including his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
So far, the details of any direct collusion have been thin. In 2019, both Flynn and Manafort will be back in court to face sentencing after pleading guilty to various charges. Both men have cooperated with investigators and the full extent of their cooperation has yet to be revealed.
A federal judge told Flynn during a recent hearing that “arguably, you sold your country out.”
In December, Cohen plead guilty to campaign finance violations and will begin serving his three-year sentence in March but has also indicated he has more to tell federal investigators about Trump’s campaign.