O.K., pop quiz. Which name does not belong on the following list: Aaron Burr, Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Bob Hope and Donald Trump? After Monday’s eye-popping, breath-taking display of Trumpian obsequiousness and naiveté, the answer is pretty obvious. Old Ski Nose was a patriot, through and through.
Not so Donald Trump, whose irresponsible, egomaniacal, destructive behavior of the past week might well be unparalleled in American history, certainly by anyone occupying the White House. Not only did Trump roundly insult the British Prime Minister on her own soil, but he praised her chief critic, Boris Johnson, who had just quit the Cabinet in protest. To ensure no feathers remained unruffled in the merry olde mother country, he kept the Queen waiting for over ten minutes in the hot sun, and then pushed past her as deftly as he did the prime minister of Montenegro in 2017.
Trump also brought along a bag full of insults for our allies in the European Union, or as he prefers to think of them, our “foes.” Seriously? “Foes?” Well, yes, according to Trump. “Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe,” Trump pronounced. “They’ve really taken advantage of us and many of those countries are in NATO and they weren’t paying their bills.” Never mind that many EU countries have increased their defense spending under both Obama and Trump, and have another 7 years to reach the 2% goal. Never mind that this alliance of our “foes” has maintained the peace in Europe longer and with greater stability than anytime in the last four centuries. Trump will just castigate them, in Germany’s case, for buying natural gas from Russia. (Oops, the U.S. did that last year, too! What does that make us?)
But Trump’s behavior with Russian President Putin was the cherry on the sundae of Trump’s week of diplomatic catastrophes. Not only did he conduct a private meeting with Putin which he thought went splendidly, but he also came down firmly on Putin’s side, against his own intelligence agencies, on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election (which he reminded everyone he won by defeating Hillary Clinton). If there was any question who got the better of the private talks, it was clarified when Trump revealed that while Putin would not agree to extradition of those indicted for interference, he would consider allowing them to be interviewed by Russian authorities. In return, Russian would get U.S. help with “cases of interest to Moscow.”
Trump, a master dealmaker if there ever was one, was overjoyed. Putin’s idea of letting Russians interview Russians was “an incredible offer.” Of course, Trump, added, “I don’t see any reason why” Russia would have interfered in the election in he first place. Maybe because two years ago, Trump invited the Russian to attempt to hack Clinton’s email server during the presidential campaign (which, if you forgot, he won.)
The reaction from Trump’s own party to his cozying up to Putin and denigrating (a) Mueller, (b) the Department of Justice and (c) the intelligence agencies was swift, as long as you were (a) out of office, (b) extremely ill or (c) not running for office again. The press conference was “the most serious mistake of his presidency,” according to former Speaker Newt Gingrich. When Newt is complaining that you went overboard, you really need to worry, The ailing Sen. John McCain, whose 7 years as a POW Trump once ridiculed, called the president’s statement “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Not to be outdone, John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, asserted that Trump’s embrace of Putin was “nothing short of treasonous,” easily exceeding “the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’” which is the ground for you-know-what.
Which raises the issue: What should Democrats do? The answer depends on what the desired goal might be. The short-term response could be to draw up papers to indict Trump based on his statements in Helsinki, but that would be a major mistake. Democrats need self-discipline, because the goal here is to make it as easy as possible for moderates, independents, and even some Republicans to vote Democratic this fall, and Trump has provided a compelling rationale for doing so.
The message of House Democrats should be aimed at those swing voters and should go something like this:
“Republicans in Congress have squandered their constitutional responsibility to stand up to the president and provide institutional oversight. Unless you are comfortable with Trump continuing to wreak chaos at home and on the world stage, without a substantive peep from the legislative branch, we must have a Democratic Congress to ask reasonable questions. Clearly, the Republican majority has instead decided it is too scared, or too enamored of Trump to perform that responsibility. At a minimum, congressional committees should demand that Trump come before them, in closed session if necessary, and tell them exactly what transpired in his private tète-a-tète with Putin.”
For those worried that a Democratic majority would behave irresponsibly, consider that the only way Democrats will reach the majority is by winning more moderate swing seats. They will then have their own inner dynamic to avoid polarizing and extreme policies and instead serve as an appropriate constitutional check on a president badly in need of independent oversight. And this idea is not fanciful; when Democrats won a majority under President George W. Bush in 2006, they found common ground on a stimulus, on an energy bill and on the financial rescue despite the inherent challenges of divided government and a looming election.
Some Democrats would rather have the election be a referendum on the public’s embrace of hardline issues like impeachment, abolishing ICE and single payer health. Those ideas have little appeal to the voters Democrats must win to secure the swing seats that get them to 218 votes. They need to work hard to make sure that happens. One thing is for certain: Donald Trump is already doing his level best to create a Democratic majority.
John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published by John’s blog, Domeocracy.