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The Democrat plan for opposing Donald Trump’s administration

The opposition party may not have the numbers, but it knows how to work the rules of Washington better than the President.

By Rob Crilly

The speakers at Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan did not need to look far for inspiration. Ferries leave for Ellis Island – the immigration station that is central to America’s shared story – from here and the Statue of Liberty stands visible just across the harbour in the winter sun.

The crowds stretched back to Broadway, 10,000 people energised in opposition to Donald Trump.

Chuck Schumer, senator for New York, brought his audience to a roar as he condemned a slew of Donald Trump’s new immigration regulations. “They are bad for America, they are bad for humanity, they are bad for our national security and they are against everything that is American,” he said.

There was a commotion as he spoke. Half a dozen late arrivals, all wearing black jackets, pushed their way in single file to the centre of the crowd. They fanned out and began their chant: “Grow a spine Chuck, You must obstruct.”

This was the dilemma facing Democrats as they contemplated taking on Trump’s new administration. While many activists wanted to go scorched earth early, Washington insiders urged patience.

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In the Senate they have confirmed the likes of Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, giving Trump his Defence Secretary in the hope that a general who has taken a public line against waterboarding will bring a responsible head to the administration.

On Capitol Hill they remember how Republicans promised to make Barack Obama a one-term president. They failed and were blamed for blocking government business.

This time Democrats promised to hold their fire. Ignore the never-ending stream of Trumpian outrages and wait for the sort of substantive controversies they could use to divide Republicans, the wedge issues they could use to tackle Trump’s slender majority in the Senate.

No one expected Trump to hand it to them in the form of a bungled executive order at the end of his first week. But that has been the effect of his decision to suspend the entry of all refugees as well as visitors from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.

He might have got away with it – the measures are popular in the other America, the one that voted for the billionaire businessman to shake up the political elite – but for the implementation.

Airlines and border officers received no warning. Grandmothers and Iraqi translators who worked for US forces were locked up as they stepped off planes with valid visas. Bad PR.

And in the days that followed, it has become clear that a number of departments were either not consulted or were unhappy with the proposals.

With a bit more thought, someone might have realised that including green card holders – legal residents of the US – would be seen as an attack on the American Dream.

Even without having formed his cabinet, Trump has handed an opportunity to the Democrats.

Schumer, as minority leader in the Senate, is the closest thing they have to a national leader right now. “You’d at least think on something as serious as this that there’d be consultation and care,” he says at his office in Manhattan. “This is serious stuff. This is human lives at risk.”

He ran through the names of Republicans who opposed it. They include the usual suspects, such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as less likely characters who see an un-American religious test in promises to favour Christians in the refugee process.

“If we get a few more Republicans I think we may be able to pass legislation to overturn it,” he says.

By Tuesday, buoyant Senate Democrats were in full obstruction mood, riding the exuberant mood of public protest and boycotting hearings to confirm two cabinet selections. With a Republican majority in the Senate they will struggle to reject candidates, but by playing nasty they could bog down the administration in wrangling for weeks.

Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science, says the Trump team’s lack of political experience was meeting the realities of doing business in Washington. “On the one hand, this is the result of a president intent on fulfilling what he sees as his political mandate,” she says. “But you can’t let politics take over the policy. On the other hand, we have to be really careful about underestimating him.”

Maybe this is a plan, runs one theory. Introduce rolling chaos to draw out the opponents until resistance fatigue sets in and Trump can do as he pleases. Or a populist leader is coming unstuck as he negotiates the nitty gritty of governing without having won the popular vote or understanding the rules of Washington.