Subtlety has never been one of Donald Trump’s strong suits, and I must confess, I have been loathe to attribute great strategic skills to this most incoherent and incompetent of presidents. Yet increasingly, one must begrudgingly acknowledge Trump’s strategy for countering the enhanced congressional oversight resulting from last November’s election.
There are significant ideological cleavages within the Democratic party over the wisdom of pursuing impeachment in the House versus conducting vigorous oversight and issuing reports or perhaps a contempt resolution. Yet as many as 70 percent of Democrats, according to some polls, favor inquiries that are tied to a vote to impeach Trump, about double the percentage of all voters favoring such an action.
Trump understands that it is to his advantage to agitate that irritation within the Democratic ranks. Several of the presidential candidates – Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris – have already endorsed impeachment, a consequence-free option for senators who do not face re-election concerns, as do a few dozen marginal House members forced to choose between the party’s inflamed base and the moderates and independents whose votes they must have for re-election. It is, of course, this latter cohort of representatives whom Democrats need to hold their seats and, therefore, retain their House majority.
Some of the newly elected Democratic House freshmen have similarly embraced the impeachment route, as have some veterans like Maxine Waters. Without exception, all of them, like the Senate proponents, represent secure Democratic districts where their only electoral uncertainly lies in a primary challenge from the Left. In such districts, a vote for impeachment is without risk. Many would not even care if investigations or hearings were first conducted.
Those clinging tenuously to seats that only months ago were held by Republicans – and very often, conservative Republicans – are more skeptical of impeachment although just as avid about using aggressive oversight to probe the Mueller Report, the Justice Department, and other aspects of the scandal swirling around Trump and his administration.
In the center of the maelstrom are Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the leadership (including the relevant committee chairs Jerry Nadler, Elijah Cummings and Adam Schiff) who are wary of prejudging the outcome of their investigations by prematurely advocating impeachment. The leaders, who know their hopes for preserving the majority lie in retaining those marginal seats, are urging that members be circumspect in advocating removal of the president from office, pointing out that obligatory investigations will consume months that move the nation closer and closer to voters making the ultimate judgment on whether Trump should remain in office.
Assuring the continuation of this intra-party roiling is very much in Donald Trump’s interest. To the extent that he can foment tension among the presidential hopefuls or within the Democratic Caucus, the better for him to make the case to voters against entrusting the White House (or the House itself) to a divided and self-flagellating party. It is all well and good for pundits and hardliners to pontificate about the need to impeach, damn the consequences to Congress; but if those consequences include a GOP majority that can rescind health care coverage for millions, walk away from climate change obligations, and run the deficit to nose-bleed levels while preaching the false gospel of balanced budgets, Democrats need to measure their responses very carefully.
Trump has hit on a simple strategy for ensuring that the Democratic turmoil grows: absolute opposition to allowing current or former administration officials to testify before congressional committees. He knows such defiance is certain to heighten calls for impeachment, especially since stonewalling Congress was one of the articles of impeachment approved by the Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon in 1974.
Trump is taking legal action to prevent former officials like ex-White House attorney Don McGahn from appearing before House panels. His myrmidon Attorney General William Barr has stiff-armed the Democratic House (after appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by the sycophantic Lindsay Graham). Apparently, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, yet another toady willing to sacrifice his reputation for Trump, is refusing to turn over the president’s tax returns as subpoenaed by Congress, which has the legal authority to check for conflicts of interest and personal enrichment. And the president has opined that former Special Counsel Robert Mueller should not testify before the House, as he may be negotiating for May 15.
Trump doubtless delights in provoking such a constitutional confrontation, knowing that it consumes valuable time, casts Democrats as obsessed inquisitors, and fosters division within the party’s ranks while costing him absolutely nothing. He may also suspect that the courts will be loath to jump into an internecine battle between the Legislative and Executive branches, preferring to let them settle their disputes without judicial interference. Chaos, a divided opposition, and delay all work for Trump and make it more difficult for Democrats to unify and offer a coherent appeal to independent voters who will undoubtedly have enormous influence in next year’s election.
Defer, deflect and delay; it has been Donald Trump’s operational strategy for decades. In the end, he might face a judicial reprimand on executive privilege or a few censure resolutions against his staff, his family or even himself. Reprimands and resolutions don’t end presidencies, and Trump has Graham and McConnell to make sure the heavier weaponry never comes near the White House. It will take enormous skill and discipline for House Democrats to avoid falling into Trump’s trap, especially if they are goaded on by presidential hopefuls and an animated base who would rather have the fight than the 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 on John’s blog, Domeocracy.