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Trump v. The “I” Word

As legal decisions go against the administration, the president appears caught in his own impeachment trap.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

There is a theory—one bordering, in some circles, on conventional wisdom—that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump are in complete agreement about impeachment. “It seems that Trump and Republican political strategists have reached pretty much the same conclusion as Pelosi and the rest of Democratic leadership: impeaching Trump would backfire and be a tremendous political gift,” The Washington Examiner’s Phillip Klein wrote on Wednesday. CNN’s Stephen Collinson, meanwhile, reported last week that “many Democrats fear that Trump may be laying an impeachment trap that could consume the House majority, distract them from key issues like health care and alienate persuadable voters.” Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that the typical political rulebook does not apply: No normal president wants to be impeached. But this is not a normal president.

In this line of thinking, Donald Trump’s recent actions—his blanket refusal to give anything to congressional investigators, his tweetstorms ranting about overreach, and his decision to walk out of a meeting with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over ongoing inquiries—are all bluster, aimed at provoking Democrats to impeach him and, ultimately, hand him a second term.

The idea that Trump is playing “three-dimensional chess”itself conventional wisdom before the president’s always obvious mix of idiocy and impulsiveness became undeniable for even the swampiest pundits—lives on in this narrative. Trump and Pelosi may very well have theories about what will happen politically if Democrats decide to impeach, but that doesn’t mean much. The politics of impeachment are complex, and if either Trump or Pelosi are certain that they know what will happen, they should use their superhuman powers of clairvoyance to do something more useful than whatever is happening in Washington—like betting on horses. It’s impossible to predict at this point what will happen if Democrats pull the trigger. It could look like Nixon in 1974, but it could also look like Bill Clinton in 1998.

Rather than being a well-oiled trap, Trump’s actions speak to a baser motivation: He is absolutely petrified of Democrats conducting any oversight whatsoever. This is, broadly speaking, in line with his reaction to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. Referring to other historical independent investigations, Trump reportedly told aides “I’m fucked.” He seems to have taken a similar view of congressional investigations, going to absurd lengths to protect any information about his businesses or administration from reaching the public. This obstinance has been interpreted by some as next-level political thinking, but it more likely speaks to Trump’s long-standing contempt for the law (or any organization that attempts to hold wealthy people accountable), and his pavlovian refusal to give an inch to any opponent.

For most of this year, this strategy has worked well for the president and his allies. Led by Pelosi, the Democrats believe they hold a strong hand heading into the 2020 election, and have been hesitant to take any action that could backfire politically. While House committees have cautiously poked at Trump’s misdoings, the administration has refused to let key officials—like former White House Counsel Don McGahn—testify before Congress, and have universally ignored document requests. Aside from the Mueller report, which was released last month, Democrats have made little progress in the fight to hold the president and those around him accountable. That, rather than inducing impeachment, is the president’s ultimate goal.

But cracks are appearing in the administration’s dam. Trump officials are having an increasingly difficult time explaining their refusal to cooperate with inquiries. As the week started, the fight over McGahn’s testimony continued, with the now-private attorney following a White House dictum to ignore Congress. “Our subpoenas are not optional,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said during his opening remarks Tuesday, the day McGahn was supposed to appear. “This committee will hear Mr. McGahn’s testimony even if we have to go to court.” Subpoenas issued this week to former White House officials Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson are likely to yield similar fights.

Also Tuesday, The Washington Post reported on an IRS memo that made it clear the agency must deliver Trump’s tax returns to Congress, unless the president can find a way to invoke executive privilege. This contradicts the administration’s current position, which is that such records shouldn’t be given to Congress because they “serve no legislative purpose.” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, said that he wouldn’t release them anyway—to hell with black-letter law, the IRS finding, and the Constitution. “I’ve had no conversations ever with the president or anyone in the White House about delivering the president’s tax returns to Congress,” he said.

But this across-the-board refusal to cooperate appears to have shifted Democrats’ calculus on impeachment. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, the Democratic caucus seemed to be united behind Pelosi’s cautious approach. That consensus has splintered rapidly in the past two days. Unable to meaningfully proceed with any investigation, numerous House Democrats and many presidential candidates (the two groups are not mutually exclusive) have come out in favor of impeachment, viewing it as the only investigative option at their disposal.

Things might be picking up in the courts, too. On Wednesday, a federal judge rejected Trump’s effort to block subpoenas of his financial records from Deutsche Bank—where it was recently reported that Trump’s financial activities had set off alarms about money laundering—and Capital One.

This growing pressure led to a day of tantrums and hissy fits. “Everything the Democrats are asking me for is based on an illegally started investigation that failed for them, especially when the Mueller Report came back with a NO COLLUSION finding,” Trump whined on Twitter in the early morning. “Now they say Impeach President Trump, even though he did nothing wrong, while they ‘fish!’” He later stormed out of a meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, telling the Democratic leaders that he would not work on an infrastructure bill with them unless they dropped their investigations. (Given the lack of progress during the roughly sixty preceding “infrastructure weeks,” this can safely be assumed to qualify as an empty threat.) That walkout was staged, with Trump appearing soon after at a Rose Garden lectern festooned with a placard advertising the (in federal government terms, modest) cost of the special counsel’s investigation. But that, too, was only more evidence of the White House’s growing concern that the walls are closing in—their best argument against Mueller’s investigation is its cost which, according to a study released on Wednesday, is dwarfed by that of the president’s golfing excursions. Unable to actually say “impeachment”—just “the i word”—Trump drew instant comparisons to Nixon when he swore “I don’t do coverups.”

As noted, if these were normal times, it might be possible to look at all of this as part of the president’s grand plan to provoke Democrats into impeachment. But examined in a more informed context, the picture looks quite different. Far from setting a trap for the other party, the Trump administration’s strategy of blocking every single inquiry—a strategy that, it should be said, has thus far been largely successful—appears to be catching different prey. Trump’s goal was never to make Democrats moved to impeach; it was to avoid any level of accountability. That, at long last, started to change this week.