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When It Comes to Trump, Nancy Pelosi May Be Too Clever for Our Own Good

Why only unambiguous opposition to Trump can save us

Congressional Democrats, including (L-R) House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA), Senate Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), talk to reporters following a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House April 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. The Democratic leaders met with Trump to discuss infrastructure.

Congressional Democrats, including (L-R) House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA), Senate Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), talk to reporters following a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House April 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. The Democratic leaders met with Trump to discuss infrastructure. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last week a New York Times profile of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi reported that Pelosi wants the Democrats to “stay in the center,” insisting that for the party to succeed in 2020 it must “own the mainstream.”

Pelosi, currently the most powerful Democrat in public office, has surely sought to strike that pose. She has been consistently cool to ambitious progressive ideas, like the Green New Deal, and to their idealistic proponents, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; she has quite publicly resisted calls from within her own caucus to commence an impeachment inquiry, insisting that impeachment would require a “bipartisan consensus” and a level of broad public support that is currently lacking; and she has maintained that while Democrats must support appropriate investigations of the Trump administration, they must also work “constructively” to try to pass legislation that benefits the American people.

The most striking instance of this effort to strike a moderate pose is Pelosi’s recent initiative to meet with Donald Trump at the White House, and to attempt to collaborate with him on a $2 trillion infrastructure bill. In a column last Monday, I criticized this effort, arguing that it might be motivated by tactical savvy, but it is an act of weakness and cowardice, that could only offer Trump an appearance of statesmanship at a time when he is vulnerable and is lashing out. I stand by what I wrote: “either the Democrats are in a political battle, now, to defeat a dangerous president, or they are not.”

During the latter part of the week, as the Trump administration doubled down on its refusal to comply with any Congressional requests for documents, including an unredacted copy of the Mueller Report, Pelosi seemed to come around to a more combative position. But appearances can be deceiving, and unfortunately Pelosi has remained frustratingly inconsistent.

On Wednesday, May 1 she held a press conference whose message was neatly summarized by The Washington Post: “Pelosi assails Trump for ‘unconstitutional’ acts in new messaging campaign.” As the Post described an early draft of a memo from Pelosi’s office criticizing Trump:

“The president’s disdain for rule of law and the Republicans’ complicity in his abuses of power are doing lasting damage to American democracy,” the document reads, later adding: “Congress is a co-equal branch of government, intended to serve as a check on executive power and prevent the rise of a tyrant. Preventing Congress from exercising any oversight as the president intends fundamentally impairs the balance of power.”

Pelosi’s press conference message was powerful, linking the Trump administration’s continued obstruction of justice to a set of broader themes and issues, including the importance of public transparency, the rule of law, and the ways that the administration is seeking to legally invalidate the Affordable Care Act. Pelosi explicitly used the language of “connecting the dots.” And as she spoke, she also announced the aforementioned two-page press release, entitled “Trump Administration Obstruction: Unprecedented, Unwarranted, Unconstitutional.” The key statement in the press release is clear: “The Constitution enshrines Congress as a co-equal branch, with the authority to conduct oversight of the Executive branch to ensure that government works for the people and that the American people get the answers they deserve. The President’s disdain for rule of law and the Republicans’ complicity in his abuses of power are doing lasting damage to American democracy.”

I watched this press conference with great satisfaction, and immediately posted on Facebook that Pelosi is now behaving like the leader we need.

On Thursday, May 2 she followed up with a very public denunciation of Attorney General Barr who, she stated, “committed a crime” by lying to Congress.

And indeed, in the previously-mentioned Times profile — which ran on Saturday, May 4 — the one about claiming “the center” — Pelosi came out with the most striking statement yet made by any Democratic leader: that she is concerned that Trump will not give up power unless he is defeated by a very large margin, and that “we have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that.”

“If we win by four seats, by a thousand votes each, he’s not going to respect the election,” said Ms. Pelosi, recalling her thinking in the run-up to the 2018 elections. “He would poison the public mind. He would challenge each of the races; he would say you can’t seat these people,” she added. “We had to win. Imagine if we hadn’t won — oh, don’t even imagine. So, as we go forward, we have to have the same approach.”

I don’t believe that commentators have treated this comment with the seriousness that it deserves. And yet, alas, I fear that neither has Pelosi herself taken the full measure of the comment.

For this same profile — which centers on an on-the-record interview with Pelosi — concludes by reiterating that Pelosi is committed to a “constructive” and “pragmatic” approach to legislation, describing her approach thus: “In her mind, that means grinding away at initiatives that she hopes will help re-elect new members in battleground districts, even if it risks delivering some achievements for Mr. Trump, and angering some critics on the left.” The profile thus ends with her recent “infrastructure” meeting with Trump at the White House: “Ms. Pelosi reiterated her demand that Mr. Trump present her with a detailed plan on how to pay for it, and left feeling optimistic but unsure that the president had the focus to follow through. ‘Well,’ Ms. Pelosi said, ‘that’s an attention-span subject.’”

Pelosi knows how to provoke and to troll Trump, and her final quote, surely approved by her staff prior to publication, is a dig at Trump. But it is also a public reiteration, yet again, of her determination to somehow achieve a legislative success. Some commentators have generously interpreted all of this as a move to appear to be “responsible” and to expose Trump’s lack of follow through on a “deal.” This is possible. But this is precisely why I believe that Pelosi is being too clever for our own good. It may make perfect sense for Pelosi, who is a legislative leader, and not a national political leader, to engage in such a war of positioning with Trump. But the bottom line is that by doing this, she is being true to herself at the expense of the coherent messaging, and determined mobilizing, that Democrats now need if they are going to defeat Trump.

For however clever Pelosi is being, her recent words can only have the effect of producing an enormous cognitive dissonance.

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On the one hand she is giving a press conference, with accompanying press release, declaring that Trump is endangering constitutional democracy, followed up with a major interview in which she articulates a fear that Trump might not leave office even if he loses the 2020 elections — stating, in other words, that Trump has dictatorial aspirations.

And on the other, she is meeting with him and stating that she hopes he will “come around” and they can work together.

Jennifer Rubin, the anti-Trump conservative who has consistently published important commentary, has been one of the most prominent defenders of Pelosi’s general approach, arguing in a column last week that “Democrats have many avenues of attack,” and should pursue them all:

Republicans and nervous Democrats would have us believe that Democrats must choose a single approach in the face of President Trump’s multifaceted wrongdoing. Nope.

The House can hold investigative hearings — calling Robert S. Mueller III, Donald McGahn, Hope Hicks and others — without yet making a decision to pursue impeachment of Trump. At the same time, the House can subpoena Attorney General William P. Barr and hold him in contempt if he refuses to appear and produce the full Mueller report. The House can also, if Barr still refuses and further instructs the U.S. attorney not to enforce a contempt finding in court, pursue impeachment of Barr. Too much going on at once? Well, that never stopped Trump. None of this precludes the House from moving forward on popular legislation. To prove the point, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) visited the White House to talk about an infrastructure bill with Trump. And that activity doesn’t impede Pelosi’s ability to slam Trump for trying to wipe out the Affordable Care Act, which is precisely what she did on Wednesday. (“Today, the Trump Administration is continuing Republicans’ monstrous campaign to destroy pre-existing condition protections and Americans’ access to affordable health care,” she said in response to the administration’s brief in the Fifth Circuit seeking to strike down the entire ACA.)

Rubin describes such an approach as “a full court press.”

But here’s the problem: in basketball, the purpose of every “full court press” is to pressure the opposing team to give up the ball so that you can score and then, by doing this repeatedly, win. It is not to sometimes cooperate with the opposing team, and allow them to score, in the hope that this will somehow confuse them or make them look bad.

I continue to believe that what is needed now is for House Democrats to open a formal impeachment inquiry, to center all investigations and subpoenas on this very serious step, which will gain maximum public attention, and then to use the public attention to slowly, painstakingly, and clearly “connect the dots” of which Pelosi has spoken, and to educate the public about the many ways that Trump is a threat to our system of our government. If done properly, this can weaken Trump politically, expose his Republican enablers as liars and hypocrites, and further solidify a consistent 2020 message that all Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination can and should get behind, whatever their policy differences: the message that Trumpism threatens democracy, and that the Democratic retaking of the national government is needed to defend and to extend democracy. Such an approach could be carefully orchestrated to extend into 2020 and to prepare for the November elections.

Obviously, such a move would represent a calculated risk, and would require some kind of consensus among House Democrats. Like all calculated risks, it is risky. And I can understand the argument that a formal declaration of impeachment ought to be delayed — what some have called the “Benghazi option,” referring to the way House Republicans relentlessly investigated Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election. I don’t completely buy this argument, for one reason among many: because while the Republican harassment of Clinton was just that, harassment, Trump has committed many (arguably) impeachable offenses, many of which have been amply documented by the two-year Mueller investigation, and Trump is a clear and present danger who warrants the kind of public oversight and challenge that an impeachment inquiry can bring. But other smart people do, and they might be right. It might make sense now to avoid the move to a formal impeachment, and to use the House Judiciary, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform Committees to perform the necessary investigation. I still believe a more concentrated effort can better focus public attention. But those who believe, with Philip Bump, that “Investigation is the new impeachment”), may be right.

What cannot be right is to claim that Trump is a danger to the republic, and to orchestrate House investigations in a politically serious way that focuses attention on this, and at the same time to meet with Trump in the White House and even feign to do deals with him.

It is imperative that Democratic leaders — in the House, in the Senate, and on the Presidential campaign trail — are vocal and publicly consistent about the fact that there can be no politics as usual as long as Trump is in the White House and Mitch McConnell controls the Senate. Policy debates and agendas are important—but only insofar as they are articulated with an unambiguous opposition to Trumpism.

Saturday’s Times profile notes, in passing, that “Ms. Pelosi remains committed to avoiding impeachment, but it is clear that she is losing patience. . . increasingly, in public and in private, Ms. Pelosi is suggesting that Mr. Trump’s behavior rises to the level of impeachment, even if she views the process itself as unacceptably dangerous for Democrats.” I believe that Pelosi is wrong about the “unacceptable dangers” of impeachment, and that a combination of unfolding events, and the arguments of other Democrats, will make this increasingly plain. But Pelosi is not a visionary, and if she is afraid of a formal impeachment declaration, that is fine. For now.

But what is not fine is for her to continue to speak, publicly, out of both sides of her mouth. The press release she made public last week says it right, and on this there can be no wavering: “Trump Administration Obstruction: Unprecedented, Unwarranted, Unconstitutional.” There can be no deal making with such an administration. “The President’s disdain for rule of law and the Republicans’ complicity in his abuses of power are doing lasting damage to American democracy.”

This President must be opposed, consistently and unambiguously. Period.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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