The President is doing what he always does when he’s in a dark political corner: fight harder than any man alive, adopting a relentless strategy of total political warfare and lashing out in a way that may ultimately be self-defeating.
Trump complained Wednesday, in an angry and, at times, even poignant televised outburst, that he’s not getting any breaks – and it’s just not fair!
He complained about taking hits from the courts, from Democrats, from the press, from enemies old and new. He bemoaned the treatment of his son, Don Jr., who he said was a “good young man who’s gone through hell.”
This all came amid worrying signs for the President from a brace of judicial rulings that financial and tax records he’s fought desperately to keep private may – sooner or later – find their way into Democratic hands.
“We’ve had a House investigation. We have Senate investigations. We have investigations like nobody’s ever had before,” he said, speaking behind banners taped to the presidential podium, reading “No Collusion” and “No Obstruction.”
Trump’s Wednesday walkout marked a clear strategic shift. He’s decided that as long as he’s under investigation, his hopes of finding any common ground with Democrats on issues that could help both sides in 2020 are a busted flush.
“You can go down the investigation track, and you can go down … the track of let’s get things done for the American people,” he said.
“We’re going to go down one track at a time. Let them finish up,” Trump said, adopting an absolutist position that could strip his legacy of badly needed domestic achievements.
By Thursday morning, the President was trying to spin the stalemate to his advantage, painting Democrats as uncooperative on issues important to Americans including health care, infrastructure and high prescription drugs prices.
“All they are geared up to do, six committees, is squander time, day after day, trying to find anything which will be bad for me,” Trump tweeted.
“The Democrats have become known as THE DO NOTHING PARTY!”
Mess of his own making?
Of course, Democrats and Trump critics would argue he’s brought it all on himself – with the shady meetings between his campaign aides and Russians, with apparent efforts to throw shade at Robert Mueller’s investigation and his strategy of all-out non-cooperation with oversight efforts by the Democratic-led House.
But the Rose Garden rant came with Trump under extreme pressure.
For the second time in as many days, a judge repudiated his strategy of ignoring congressional subpoenas. Trump will fight all the way up to the Supreme Court if necessary. But the ruling was more proof that the bluster and the alternative state of constitutional reality created by the President struggle to stand up in a court of law.
The hits kept on coming.
A new volley of subpoenas buffeted Trump’s inner circle a day after he refused to let his former White House counsel Don McGahn testify – including one targeting trusted former confidante Hope Hicks. The former White House communications director may be a weaker data point than McGahn if Trump argues that her evidence should be shielded by executive privilege.
Outside political pressure is also building on the President. CNN reports this week suggest his position in the Rust Belt states that sent him to the White House is weakening, and he’s having to share TV time with Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden – who poses a threat to Trump’s blue-collar heartland voters.
The last straw for Trump on Wednesday, according to aides, was a shot by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – painting Trump as a Nixon-style conspirator – just before she went to the White House to discuss a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package .
“Instead of walking in happily into a meeting, I walk in to look at people that have just said that I was doing a cover-up,” Trump said. Instead of discussing the plan, he rebuked the California Democrat and went to find the waiting, pre-positioned White House press to vent his anger.
Walking away may not be working
Trump’s strategy of torching a meeting, turning on his heel and raising the stakes is familiar from his life as a real estate magnate. But there is increasing evidence that walking away from the table doesn’t work as well for a President as it can for businessmen.
He tried it with North Korea, and the Stalinist state still has its nuclear weapons. He did it with China, and a trade war is deepening. A previous walkout also killed off a nascent immigration deal with Democrats that could have funded his border wall, the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign.
“To watch what happened in the White House would make your jaw drop,” said another old Trump foe, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, twisting the knife.
It’s possible that Trump’s counterattack against Pelosi is designed to crank up pressure on the speaker from left-wing members of her restive Democratic caucus.
She has previously questioned whether Trump is trying to goad her into initiating impeachment hearings – in the belief that he could paint her as captive to extreme “socialist” elements and urge voters to reject Democratic overreach.
But Pelosi seemed to stabilize her position on Wednesday after a meeting with Democratic House members.
And a ruling by a federal judge that Trump could not block House subpoenas seeking his financial records from Deutsche Bank and Capital One appeared to validate her strategy of using investigatory tools short of impeachment.
“Very excited, no surprise,” Pelosi told reporters. “Two in one week.”
Trump is no Bill Clinton
In theory, it is possible for a President who is under scrutiny from a hostile Congress to still get things done. Bill Clinton proved that in the 1990s even as he was impeached.
“The President is, frankly, taking a position that no other president in history has ever taken, which is that somehow if you are being investigated by the Congress you can’t do anything else,” said Clinton’s former chief of staff Leon Panetta.
“Bill Clinton did not always agree with what Speaker (Newt) Gingrich’s Republicans were doing in the House. But at the same time, he was working with Speaker Gingrich on getting legislation passed,” Panetta told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
But Trump lacks Clinton’s supernatural capacity to compartmentalize bad news. The current President showed Wednesday that he’s driven by emotion and grievance. And he’s just being true to himself in responding to perceived insults by striking back hard.
The result of Wednesday’s angry exchange is a Washington facing the prospect of a prolonged period of complete breakdown between the Congress and the White House.
Infrastructure reform may always have been a pipe dream. It’s been a consistent punchline after multiple failed efforts during the Trump administration. But there is crucial business that Democrats and the President need to get done. If they don’t, there could be grave economic and even global reverberations.
On Tuesday, hope rose in Washington for a budget deal that would stave off $120 billion in automatic cuts, head off a fiscal cliff over raising the debt ceiling and set spending levels for two years.
But it’s not clear whether such an agreement between House and Senate Republicans and Democrats and the White House would survive Trump’s refusal to stop working with Democrats until they stop investigating him.
And the President’s aspirations of finally passing his replacement deal with Canada and Mexico for the North American Free Trade Agreement – a plank of his 2020 reelection platform – could also fizzle in a prolonged estrangement between the White House and the Democrats on Capitol Hill.