Democrats were never going to do a deal with Republicans on infrastructure.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer played along with President Donald Trump’s pretense at wanting to move forward with $2 trillion overhaul of the country’s infrastructure, but anyone who knew the basic dynamics of Washington, D.C. saw it for the farce that it was. While Trump presented himself as an unorthodox Republican in 2016 willing to use government spending to solve problems, he has shown in office that he is as stingy and resistant to funding productive programs as any other Republicans. And if Trump had strayed from this course, his party would have stopped him.
So why did Pelosi and Schumer play along? On Wednesday, Trump showed why.
He stormed out of a meeting with Democrats on how to pay for an infrastructure bill after demanding that they stop investigating him. And then, he threw himself a pity party in the White House Rose Garden where he declared that he won’t do a deal on infrastructure or cooperate with Democrats in any other way until they stop investigating him.
“I want to do infrastructure,” he said. “But you know what, you can’t do it under these circumstances.”
This tantrum seemed inspired, at least in part, by Pelosi’s comment earlier in the day that Trump is engaged in a “cover-up.”
“I don’t do cover-ups,” Trump declared. Even though we know that he does.
But in addition to Pelosi’s comments, it’s clear that the mounting investigations, subpoenas, and hearings all focused on Trump and his administration’s past actions are weighing heavily on the president. It’s not clear what he fears most — his tax returns would be a good bet — but there’s no doubt he’s terrified about what could come out.
And the week has already been a bad one for Trump’s attempts to obstruct Congress. A judge slapped down his objections to a congressional subpoena to his accounting company. And shortly after his Rose Garden combustion, another judge denied his lawyers’ attempt to stop a congressional subpoena of his financial records at Deutsche Bank and Capitol One.
In short, Pelosi’s control of the House of Representatives is becoming his waking nightmare.
Which takes us back to infrastructure. Pelosi and Schumer knew there would be no infrastructure deal. Trump knew it too. On Tuesday night, he had tried to wriggle out of having to provide details for actually funding a push on infrastructure.
By encircling Trump with investigations and taunting him with accusations of a cover-up, Pelosi put him on the defensive. And when Trump is defensive, he lashes out in erratic and unstrategic ways, as we’ve seen before. When James Comey testified about their private conversations, Trump pledged that he would testify under oath that Comey had lied. When Pelosi and Schumer tussled with Trump in December 2018 about funding a border wall and avoiding a government shutdown, Schumer goaded the president into saying he would “own” the shutdown — which he eventually did.
And now, Trump has taken responsibility for thwarting an infrastructure plan. He gave Democrats an ultimatum — drop the investigations or forget about infrastructure — but this is an obviously unreasonable position. And according to a recent poll, 77 percent of Americans think the administration should comply with the investigations rather than resist.
Finally, infrastructure itself was Trump’s campaign promise. Holding hostage something he promised to the American people because he doesn’t like being investigated is hardly a sympathetic position.
At the same time, Trump’s outburst exposed just how desperate he is and how spooked the investigations have made him.
I’ve been critical of much of Pelosi’s handling of the investigations so far, because I think she hasn’t treated Trump’s corruption and crimes with the urgency they deserve, and I think she has allowed Republicans to control too much of the messaging around the Mueller report. In fact, I was dismissive of her “cover-up” comment, because she said it as if the cover-up were some new development, rather than the ongoing pattern of Trump’s political career. It also seemed to elevate the problem of noncompliance with a congressional investigation above the crimes outlined in the Mueller report, which is a message the public is unlikely to ever get on board with.
But while I disagree with some of Pelosi’s tactics, it’s clear she has a strategy she thinks works. And on Wednesday, she was in top form. She thinks the best bet to defeating Trump is by running on pocketbook issues that directly affect voters — that’s why the Democrats’ 2018 campaign focused on health care. She embraced a similar gambit in the fight over the government shutdown, which directly impacted the income of millions of workers, by standing up to Trump’s unreasonable demands and forcing him to take responsibility for the burdens placed on the American people. This time, she manipulated Trump into admitting that he’s the thing standing between the country and a major improvement to the national infrastructure — and she even managed to tie this failure to the president’s corruption. She will certainly count that as a win.