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The Do-Nothing President

Trump accuses Pelosi of choosing investigation over legislation, but compared to the president, Democrats are masters at multitasking.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Faced with escalating investigations—and mounting calls for impeachment—President Donald Trump has settled on a simple message: Democrats have chosen politically motivated investigations over their legislative duty. “Zero is getting done with the Democrats in charge of the House,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday, then resumed his complaints on Thursday:*

Trump was performatively upset with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had said earlier in the day that the president was “engaged in a cover-up” by blocking congressional investigations into a host of issues. Trump walked out on Pelosi (and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer) after only three minutes. The fit of pique was staged, however—he had always planned to leave, as demonstrated by the fully prepped Rose Garden press conference the president “crashed” immediately after. The message on the sharpie-scrawled note card Trump clutched firmly in one hand: The Democrats were choosing investigation over legislation. 

The irony, of course, is that if there’s anyone in Washington who has struggled to walk and chew gum at the same time, it’s been Donald Trump. Obsessed with cable news and social media, he has spent most of his time and his political capital ranting about his enemies. Much of what’s gotten done in Washington has been in the shadows. The Senate, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has turned into a factory for lifetime judicial appointments—and little else. At federal agencies, gutting regulations has become Job One. But, aside from a corporate tax cut aimed at pleasing conservative donors, Trump has done little of substance in the White House. And that would still be the case even if Democrats weren’t on the verge of impeaching him.

There’s no better case-in-point than the end of the latest iteration of “infrastructure week.” The very concept, as The New York Times reported on Wednesday, has turned into perhaps the longest-running joke of the Trump era. Since the first infrastructure week—way back in June of 2017—the administration has promised progress on a large, bipartisan infrastructure package that would rebuild crumbling roads, bridges, and railways across the country. Infrastructure has been widely seen as the best, and perhaps only, place for compromise between Trump and Democrats.  

There was also a hope, in some quarters, that Trump’s interest in construction—and his vanity, given that one could assume he would self-brand much of the work—would allow him to maintain focus, something he has notably struggled with in most other areas. (The president is someone, after all, who spent a meeting about tax reform workshopping nicknames for Steve Bannon.) But it never made much of a difference. There have been dozens of infrastructure weeks, and they have all ended in empty chaos. 

The failures, however, are revealing. Later reporting uncovered that infrastructure was not really the aim of the first “infrastructure week.” That charade was concocted by the administration to distract from the uproar that followed the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The latest iteration appears to have had a similar purpose, allowing the president to claim that the Democrats were the ones who were not serious about policymaking—and that he would not deal with them, in any capacity, until they dropped the numerous investigations they’ve begun since retaking the House.

Democrats, meanwhile, have actually been fairly busy. The number of bills passed by the House since January is roughly in line with past sessions of Congress where control of the House, Senate, and White House was divided between the two parties. Looking at the data, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump concluded “the argument underlying all of this—that the Democrats are investigating instead of legislating—doesn’t hold water.”

The Republican-led Senate has also been doing something, but it’s not legislating. McConnell has instead devoted almost all of the Senate’s time and energy to confirming as many right-wing judicial appointments as possible. This approach recently received blistering criticism from Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy. He chastised House Democrats for passing bills that didn’t have a chance of clearing the Republican-held Senate, but focused much of his attention on the leadership of his caucus.

“I’m not saying we’ve done nothing,” opined Kennedy on Wednesday. “I’m saying we need to do more. There are issues where our Democratic friends and my Republican friends have more in common than we don’t. We need to bring the bills to the floor of the United States Senate.”

There is no historical precedent for Trump’s argument that Congress can either investigate or legislate. As NPR’s Ron Elving reported Thursday, both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton continued working with legislators while impeachment proceedings were underway. Nixon worked with Congress on a number of issues, from providing legal aid to the poor to responding to the oil shortage.  During the long-running and partisan investigation into his business and personal affairs, Clinton worked with Republicans Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich on the federal budget and S-CHIP, the children’s health insurance program. Trump, meanwhile, has seemingly abandoned even the pretense of collaboration with Democrats or, more broadly, with Congress.

That, of course, is nothing new. Instead, it’s a continuation of a trend that has marked Trump’s entire term. The president is disinterested in policymaking and, more often than not, uses it as political cover during tumultuous moments. There is no grand strategy on infrastructure, or anything else for that matter. Republicans have ceased governing and instead are directing the majority of their political power toward non-democratic (and so, what they see as more permanent) ends: Stacking the federal judiciary and tearing up federal regulations. Call it an insurance policy for when they’re once again kicked out of office. The president, of course, doesn’t care a lick about either of those aims—though he’s more than happy to let conservatives get their way in exchange for their continued, unbridled support. He, meanwhile, would prefer to sit ensconced in his West Wing bedroom, television blaring. Democrats aren’t choosing between investigations and legislation—Trump is. Or rather, he’s making the same choice he’s made for the past two years: Do nothing.

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed tweets to Sarah Sanders that were posted by President Trump.