President Donald Trump is hardly acting like a very stable genius.
Instead, his unleashed fury, fact-bending rants and persecution complex are conjuring an image of someone seeing his presidency slipping through his hands. While current political conditions seem unlikely to lead to his ouster from office, Trump appears increasingly powerless to save himself from the historical scar of impeachment.
He has crushed just about every norm since descending his golden escalator to launch his 2016 presidential campaign. Now he’s reinventing how presidents deal with an existential scandal. And it seems to be leading him deeper into the darkness.
After a day of poor media reviews for his unrestrained tirades on Wednesday, Trump became even angrier on Thursday – calling on Communist China to open an investigation into Joe Biden – a potential 2020 general election opponent.
“China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump said at the White House.
In effect, the President was publicly calling on a US adversary to investigate a prominent American citizen who is a political opponent – the same request he made in private to Ukraine’s President – that prompted House Democrats to launch an impeachment investigation.
There is no evidence that Joe Biden received money from China. But a company that retained his son Hunter on its board, received a large investment of Chinese capital shortly after he visited the country with his father, though a lawyer for Hunter Biden has pushed back on Trump’s characterization calling it “a gross misrepresentation.”
The Biden campaign has said the President’s behavior was an abuse of power motivated by panic that the former vice president would “beat him like a drum” in 2020.
Part of Trump’s frustration may stem from the unusual nature of his current plight. Since taking office, Trump has kept Washington hopping, with his adversaries never knowing what wild gyration will rock the capital next. But in the week since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally initiated impeachment hearings, the President has seemed out of sorts. It is the Democrats who are doing all the running, and Trump can’t catch up.
“We are not fooling around,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff warned on Monday, in a grave news conference with Pelosi that contrasted with Trump’s fireworks and turned on complex constitutional justifications for the Democrats’ decision to seek the President’s impeachment.
The painful truth for Trump is that the machinery of impeachment is grinding on, and there is not much he can do about it.
Convention suggests that Trump should ignore the storm and get on, like Bill Clinton did when impeachment threatened, to do the work of the American people. A President on thin ice ought to avoid any public behavior that deepens his jeopardy.
That’s not Trump’s way.
In a pair of combustible public appearances Wednesday – alongside the unfortunate Finnish President Sauli Niinistö – Trump, as he always does, met a crisis with all guns blazing.
The President bickered bitterly with reporters, mocked his enemies with juvenile nicknames, twisted the facts of his own conduct and bemoaned how unfairly he’d been treated.
His unhinged mood was encapsulated in an encounter between the President and Jeff Mason of Reuters, one of the most down-the-line and courteous reporters in Washington.
Mason wanted to know the answer to the question that Trump refuses to address and that is at the center of the impeachment storm. What did he want from Ukraine’s President if it was not, as it appears from a transcript of their July 25 telephone call, dirt on his potential 2020 election rival Joe Biden?
When Mason, repeatedly but respectfully tried to follow up, Trump snapped: “Ask this gentleman a question. Don’t be rude.”
“I’ve answered everything. It’s a whole hoax, and you know who’s playing into the hoax? People like you and the fake news media that we have in this country,” the President added.
For all of the tantrums and feuds and demagoguery and fury, it still shocks to see a President conducting himself this way, against the backdrop of the golden curtains of the East Room, scene of some of the most solemn, and decorous occasions in the history of the White House.
When not raging, the President was feeling sorry for himself.
“The political storm, I’ve lived with it from the day I got elected,” he told a Finnish reporter, who drew gasps when she asked what favors he’d demanded from his visitor – a backhanded reference to his attempt to get Ukraine to play in the 2020 election.
“I have done more and this administration has done more than any administration in the history of this country in the first two-and-a-half years,” Trump said, though the presidents whose portraits stare down at him in the White House every day might have begged to differ.
“I’m used to it. For me it’s like putting on a suit in the morning,” Trump said of the tsunami of political disruption to which he has subjected the nation for nearly three years. In another comment that will astound the historians of the future, Trump tweeted on Wednesday that Democrats were wasting America’s time with “BULLSHIT.”
Accusing Schiff of treason, which he did several times on Wednesday, without offering any credible justification for accusing a fellow American of this most heinous of crimes, is unlikely to deflect House Democrats from their process.
Nor will the President’s arguments that Schiff is making up details of conduct that are laid out in the transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s President that he released himself.
“Believe it or not, I watch my words very carefully. There are those that think I am a very stable genius,” Trump said, though his furious mood seemed to suggest exactly the opposite.
Warning on obstruction
In the most significant development in the inquiry on Wednesday, Schiff – who has been mocked repeatedly by Trump – warned that White House efforts to stop witnesses from testifying would be deemed obstruction, hinting that any such behavior could be folded into articles of impeachment.
Trump is effectively being constrained, a novel and uncomfortable position for a businessman, a reality star and an unlikely politician who resists all kinds of control.
All his life, Trump has called the shots and he’s always forced others to respond to his impulses. It’s not surprising he’s frustrated when the shoe is on the other foot.
Subscribe to CNN’s “Meanwhile in America” newsletter by clicking here.
The President is also finding that his normal bag of tricks – denial of established reality, searing personal attacks on his foes and constant distraction and disruption – are not working.
Still, the impeachment drive is only one week old. Democrats have had the narrative mostly their way so far since institutionally they get to call the shots, leaving the administration no choice but to respond.
The White House has an incentive to make the impeachment standoff drag on as long as possible, in order to test the patience of the American people and to frustrate Democratic hopes that a swift process will keep a focus on Trump’s behavior. It could do that with questionable executive privilege claims or by fighting Democratic subpoenas in cases that could mushroom into lengthy legal battles that drag on for months.
The political calculation
While Trump appears almost certain to be impeached by House Democrats given the capital they have already sunk into the process, there’s little sign yet that Republican support for the President is fading in a way likely to convince 20 Senate Republicans to desert him and build a two-thirds majority that would convict him in any Senate impeachment trial.
It has been noticeable however that apart from his core of loyalists, such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there’s hardly been a parade of GOP lawmakers coming out in full-throated defense of the President.
CNN’s Dana Bash and Jamie Gangel reported that there is concern in the Republican Party both about the kind of behavior that Trump exhibited Wednesday and about what could happen next.
“He’s taking it upon himself to tweet about every shiny object, that’s not helpful right now,” a source involved in Senate discussions told CNN.
Sources in the administration and on Capitol Hill said that Trump’s “witch hunt” defense, which helped him build a political redoubt during the Russia investigation, is not serving him well now, and the President is yet to realize it.
Given Trump’s mood, there must be some question as to whether he will seek to disrupt the impeachment probe in a way that could deepen his constitutional jeopardy.
Niinistö seemed to be thinking along those lines, when he told the President: “Mr. President, you have here a great democracy. Keep it going on.”