Trump rages at Democrats as investigations advance on multiple fronts
An angry president makes it clear that he can’t look past the Russia investigation.
By NANCY COOK
05/22/2019 07:34 PM EDT
President Donald Trump has spent weeks insisting that Democrats and the country need to move on from the Mueller report and questions about Russian influence over his 2016 campaign.
But a day of anger and drama at the White House on Wednesday was a stark reminder that the various investigations the subject has spawned threaten to swamp the rest of Trump’s first term.
Its public centerpiece was a hastily-arranged Rose Garden monologue in which Trump declared that he would refuse to work with Congressional Democrats unless they abandon talk of inquiries and impeachment. “You can go down the investigation track, and you can go down the investment track, or the track of ‘Let’s get things done for the American people,’” Trump told a crowd of reporters who’d been hustled together for the impromptu event.
Although White House aides later downplayed the notion that Trump would cut off all cooperation with Democrats, it was the president’s starkest expression of anger to date about the Democratic-led investigations pressuring his presidency. Trump’s remarks came after he upended a White House meeting with Congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who earlier in the day had accused Trump of waging a “cover-up.”
It also arrived during a week — ostensibly dedicated to the bloodless topic of infrastructure, the subject of his aborted meeting with Democrats — in which the president has increasingly come under siege.
New York lawmakers, for instance, passed a bill on Wednesday allowing New York’s Department of Taxation and Finance to share politicians’ state tax returns with congressional committees – a move that ultimately could help Democrats as they attempt to learn more about the president’s finances.
And earlier in the week, a federal judge ruled that Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars, must turn over records and communications from its work for Trump, his businesses, and his foundation from 2011 to 2018, landing another blow to the president’s efforts to stonewall various congressional inquiries and subpoenas.
In the ruling, the judge said the Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to investigate the president for unlawful conduct regardless of any alleged political motivations. Trump’s lawyers quickly promised to appeal the decision.
The result is a president facing multiple angles of attack as he tries to pivot to a busy summer of foreign policy trips and his own re-election bid.
Trump’s response — a declaration that he can’t work with Democrats who are pursuing him — is also a break from past presidents who have tried to present an image of carrying on with the nation’s business amid partisan harassment.
“The president arguing that he is under investigation and cannot govern is basically saying that he can’t work for the American people, and I think voters will think differently about that,” said Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2000. Clinton repeatedly shrugged off questions about White House scandals by saying he was focused on his policy agenda, and Lockhart noted that Clinton managed to strike deals with House Republicans.
White House aides were quick to modulate the president, arguing behind closed doors that Trump would not stop all legislation, or end all cooperation with Democrats, despite his Rose Garden outburst and several ensuing tweets warning Democrats, in part, that “[y]ou can’t investigate and legislate simultaneously.”
Officials still expect Republicans and Democrats to work together this summer to pass the recently-negotiated USMCA trade deal. Similarly, the two parties are expected to raise the debt ceiling and come to some spending agreement to both keep the financial markets intact heading into 2020 and to take pressure off of senators facing re-election next year.
“There are a number of other things, under the radar, that we’re working on and can get done,” said one White House official. “His comments were more directed at infrastructure, I think.”
When Clinton faced vigorous investigations during his 1996 re-election campaign of subjects that included his political fundraising, Lockhart says that he still managed to work with Republicans to pass legislation that raised the minimum wage, reformed welfare, and made significant changes to health care.
“He had the exact opposite approach than President Trump on every level. He never complained publicly. He never made himself the victim, and his job was to work for American people even if Republicans were investigating,” Lockhart said.
He noted that Clinton even hosted Republican Rep. Tom DeLay – one of the architects of the impeachment proceedings — at the White House for an event on adoption during the investigations.
President Richard Nixon similarly tried to continue to govern even as the Watergate proceedings ramped up. During the Senate hearings on the scandal, Nixon tried to work on major health care legislation and economic measures to deal with stagflation, said Timothy Naftali, at New York University professor and founding director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
As the Watergate investigation wore on, Nixon turned to foreign policy as a refuge, attending a summit in the Soviet Union and visiting the Middle East in the summer of 1974, said John Aloysius Farrell, a presidential historian and author of Richard Nixon: The Life, a biography of the 37th president.
The lessons for Trump in Nixon’s experience, Farrell said, are to buy time by casting the investigations as partisan and run out the clock until the election, if possible.
“They survived Mueller without there being a smoking gun in terms of public opinion, and they can play that hand out. They don’t have that much longer to go,” Farrell added.
“The Watergate investigation started in June ‘72, but Nixon did not resign until August 1974. These things do not happen quickly – if they happen at all,” he said.
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