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President Trump's first year plays heavily into Maryland politics

President Donald J. Trump remains deeply unpopular in Maryland, but his tumultuous first year in the White House has left an unmistakable imprint on state politics.

Proposals such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and eliminating federal funding for cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay fired up critics — though neither idea gained traction — and repeatedly forced Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to weigh in on thorny national political issues.

Hogan, a popular incumbent up for re-election in 2018, distanced himself from Trump on climate change, proposed cuts to Medicaid, provisions of the GOP tax overhaul and the president's remarks following a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville over the summer that turned violent.

The question for state political observers is how that dynamic will play out in the 2018 midterm election. In addition to the gubernatorial race, Democratic Rep. John Delaney's decision to run for president has left an open seat in his Montgomery County-based 6th Congressional District.

“Trump really excited part of the progressive base in Maryland, but it remains to be seen whether that excitement can be sustained,” said Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center.

Trump’s presidency left its mark on Maryland politics in others ways, too. Immigration enforcement appeared to increase, or at least has drawn more attention. The White House named several Marylanders to prominent positions. And investigations into Russia revealed a surprising level of interest by Moscow in Baltimore.

Supporters, meanwhile, gave Trump credit for a roaring economy and for rolling back Obama-era environmental and workforce regulations they considered harmful to economic growth. Though many of Trump’s ideas are unpopular with Democrats, they hew fairly closely to the promises he made during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"We’re running at full tilt," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican.

Still, a Goucher Poll in late September found just one-quarter of Marylanders approve of the way Trump is handling the job. By contrast, 62 percent of respondents approved of Hogan.

"President Trump is his own man, and voters know that he does things his own way,” Dirk Haire, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said in a statement. “It is also important for our local candidates to chart their own course on local issues that matter most to the constituents in their respective districts.”

Democrats, conversely, see Trump’s first year as a testament to the importance of electing a vocal opposition.

“If President Trump had his way, Maryland would be in a world of hurt," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat finishing his first year in the Senate. “Fortunately, our delegation has worked as a team to stop these actions.”

Progressives rally

The response to Trump’s inauguration was intense, immediate and reminiscent of the beginnings of the conservative tea party movement seven years earlier. A day after the inauguration in January, nearly half a million people poured on to the National Mall for the Women’s March on Washington.

That intensity continued days later when thousands of people showed up at major airports, including BWI Thurgood Marshall, to protest Trump’s travel ban on predominately Muslim nations. The first iteration of the ban was ultimately blocked in federal court and it took three revisions — and nearly a year in court — before the ban took effect.

Meanwhile, dozens of progressive groups organizing under the “indivisible” banner began cropping up throughout the country and state — presenting an opportunity but also a challenge for Democratic leaders: how to capture the energy and sustain it while not allowing the party to divide between centrists and liberals.

Republicans have faced that same challenge for years.

Dr. Gwen DuBois, president of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, marched on Washington the day after the inauguration. She said she believes that the energy is just as strong as it was in January but that in Maryland groups have shifted their attention to local issues.

DuBois’ group focuses on the environment, clean energy, anti-nuclear proliferation and climate change.

“More and more people are involved in this,” she said. “That’s the silver lining in this horrible situation.… More and more people are realizing that if there’s going to be change they're going to have to get off their butts and start doing something.”

Republicans question whether the progressive intensity, even in a state like Maryland, is sustainable. When Harris held a town hall on health care in Wye Mills at the end of March, he was repeatedly shouted down by hundreds of angry constituents. Eight months later, a similar meeting in Salisbury drew a far more muted response.

“I think the initial anti-Trump enthusiasm has waned,” Harris said. “I think that’s equalized a bit.”

Key staff

Despite the state's blue roots, a number of Marylanders were appointed to prominent roles in the Trump administration.

Dr. Ben Carson, the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, became secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in March. Reed Cordish, scion of a Baltimore development family, is working in the West Wing.

But few have had as high a profile in the new administration as Rod J. Rosenstein, the former U.S. attorney for Maryland who was thrust into the center of the investigation of Russian meddling in the presidential campaign when he became deputy attorney general in April.

Rosenstein, who won bipartisan support for his Senate confirmation, became a political lightning rod after crafting a memo the White House used to justify the firing of FBI director James B. Comey in May. The memo laid out a case for how Comey botched the public relations surrounding the agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton. Trump later acknowledged that he fired Comey over Russia.

Democrats howled at the memo, but soon after Rosenstein appointed Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director, as special counsel to oversee an investigation of ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign. The probe has led to two guilty pleas, including one this month by former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn.

From Moscow to Maryland

As the investigation into Russian meddling continued, lawmakers and voters learned far more about Moscow’s effort to influence American views, including in Maryland. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter revealed thousands of ads and hundreds of accounts that were linked to Russian troll farms.

Months after the 2015 riots in Baltimore reopened old wounds about police relations with predominately African-American neighborhoods, the Internet Research Agency — a group U.S. intelligence believes is tied to President Vladimir Putin — began buying Facebook ads targeted at Maryland.

One of those ads, released in November, pictured Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American man who died in 2015 from a severe spinal injury he sustained in police custody.

According to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, Russian-linked entities purchased 250 ads in Maryland. Investigators believe as many as 126 million people nationally might have been served content from pages associated with troll farms from 2015 to 2017.

At least some of those ads were used to promote Trump’s presidential campaign.

“Maryland was in the cross hairs,” said James Ludes, vice president for public research and executive director at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. “They targeted states like Missouri and Maryland because they’ve had real disturbances around race.”

The full extent of the social media campaign — in Maryland and elsewhere — may become clearer when the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence releases more of the 3,000 ads it received from Facebook.

Until then, observers are working to understand how the Russian effort may have evolved since the election.

“I don’t believe that the Russians have stopped,” Ludes said. “I don’t think that they’ve ever left.”

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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