President Donald Trump dropped the pretense of working with congressional Democrats on Wednesday and sent a clear message that his re-election campaign will be centered on condemning overzealous investigations rather than advancing a robust domestic policy agenda.
Both sides may have feigned surprise at Trump's angry outburst, in which he said he won't work with Democrats until they drop their probes of his administration. But they were on a collision course long before Wednesday's confrontation in the Cabinet Room. Trump has been betting the future of his presidency on trying to goad Democrats into impeaching him, and the three-minute meeting marked a new low in the slow-moving drama over executive powers, congressional oversight and the critical needs of the nation.
Trump's declaration that he would end any attempt at bipartisan cooperation until Democrats drop their probes of his administration was eagerly retold by representatives of both parties. The two sides echoed long drawn rhetorical battle lines in the hours that followed.
But the roots of the disagreement trace back more than six months, to when White House aides strategized over how handle to an anticipated Democratic takeover of the House.
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Trump first delivered the warning publicly the day after Nancy Pelosi secured her return to the speakership last November, when she said her party would not have to choose between investigations and compromise. "You can't do them simultaneously," Trump countered. Promising GOP-led investigations and political attacks of his own if Democrats tried it, Trump predicted, "I could see it being extremely good politically, because I think I'm better at that game than they are, actually."
Now Trump is putting that confidence to the test.
"You can go down the investigation track," Trump said Wednesday, "or the track of 'Let's get things done for the American people.'" Expecting Democrats to stick with the former, Trump added: "Let them play their games. We're going to go down one track at a time."
As the subpoenas have flown in recent weeks, White House officials have adopted a quasi-official policy of trying to goad Democrats into impeachment. Trump has ordered his administration to stop complying with House Democrats' probes, stonewalling efforts across the board while challenging the legislative body's basic constitutional role of oversight. His intransigence has animated more and more Democrats to talk impeachment, even if just to begin proceedings in order to get further access to documents and testimony.
White House aides believe that Pelosi cannot withstand the clamor from her rank-and-file to impeach Trump, and believe that when Democrats take that step, it will assure Trump's re-election.
"We believe the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up," Pelosi told reporters Wednesday morning, barely an hour before the Democrats' scheduled meeting with Trump. Speaking later, at an event sponsored by the liberal Center for American Progress, Pelosi seemed to try to strike a balance between answering the desire to begin impeachment proceedings with concern for the political implications of that action in 2020.
"The fact is, in plain sight in the public domain, this president is obstructing justice and he's engaged in a cover-up — and that could be an impeachable offense," Pelosi said.
Even Democrats acknowledge that Trump has long excelled at playing the victim: As a candidate and president, he has railed against the "rigged" electoral system and the conspiratorial Deep State that he claims is trying to block him. He has sold his supporters on a belief that the system — secular society and the government — have worked to hold them down. The narrative of an overreaching Democratic Congress persecuting a president who has not been found guilty of any crime plays nicely into that, the Trump team believes.
Still, Trump himself has expressed a leeriness of what he calls "the I-word." He told confidants that he doesn't like discussing impeachment, yet advisers have found that the president constantly talks about it, often veering there mid-conversation to express worry or frustration at the prospect.
In one meeting with Pelosi, Trump couldn't help himself and blurted out a question for the speaker, asking if she was planning to try to impeach him. Pelosi assured him that she was not. Though Trump has worried that impeachment would be the first line of his political obituary, even though he was confident of being saved by the Senate, those around him think it may be the best thing that could happen to his re-election campaign.
White House officials believed Trump and Democrats were braced for impact in Wednesday's meeting and they were prepared to take advantage of the moment. Even before the session — meant to be a follow-up conversation on infrastructure spending — signs were building that it could signal a new phase in relations between the White House and Congress.
At the same time, Trump has been increasingly freed from the forces of containment around him in the past. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has been open about viewing his role as executing on Trump's decisions and instincts, rather than steering him toward safer ground.
On Tuesday, two senior Trump aides — including legislative affairs director Shahira Knight — announced they were departing.
That signaled the shift from legislating toward campaigning even before Wednesday's blowup in the Cabinet Room.