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How Pelosi is forcing Trump and the GOP over a cliff

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David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston

Who’s looking smart this President’s Day now that Senate Republicans held a show trial with no witnesses before acquitting Donald Trump on two impeachment charges?

Nancy Pelosi.

The Speaker held off those in her party who wanted to impeach Trump right after her party took control of the House of Representatives, annoying many of her fellow Democrats and a few Capitol Hill Republicans who privately asked Democrats to rid them of this turbulent president.

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Pelosi waited until she got an issue that should have alarmed the Republicans, a threat to our national security. Not only did witnesses and documents show that Trump helped Moscow’s push to occupy all of Ukraine, but she also showed the world that in 2020 the president and top Congressional Republicans were spreading Kremlin propaganda about our 2016 election.

With each passing day, Pelosi’s savvy political strategy grows clearer, even as she gets much too little credit.

All the Democrats must do now is market that. The Republicans are masters of marketing, using slogans and deceptions to persuade people that awful policies are actually good policies. The Democrats tend to get lost in process, basically asking people to read the fine print of their proposals instead of appealing to their emotions. But that’s a slam on Democrats as a party, not their leader.

The Speaker created a win-win in with the impeachment of Trump. With each passing day, her savvy political strategy grows clearer, even as she gets much too little credit.

Making Things Happen

Pelosi didn’t come to Washington to win the news of the day, send flurries of tweets or bask in praise. She came to get long-term results. She has a steely focus on what can be done and then making it happen.

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Even while knowing that Senate Republicans would acquit Trump, Pelosi set a trap for Trump and his obsequious Republican supporters on Capitol Hill. Lacking Pelosi’s inner confidence and skill at three-dimensional political chess, Trump and Congressional Republicans fell into Pelosi’s clever trap.

The trap: By supporting Trump no matter what, Republicans are stuck to him with political superglue. As Trump behaves ever more like a dictator, even referring to himself as “The King” in a tweet, elected Republicans cannot break free of him without tearing themselves apart.

The Democrats would have scored a huge victory had Trump been removed. That would have put Mike Pence in the White House. While Trump poses as a bigger than life character, Pence is a mere figment, a minor politician with no great political appeal, following, or track record.

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Trump Overplays His Hand

But even without convicting Trump, Pelosi’s strategy wins because now he mistakenly believes he is free at last from political constraints.

Now Trump fully embraces his instinctive—and utterly mistaken—belief that our Constitution gives him authority to “do whatever I want.”

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Actually our Constitution gives the executive the duty to do what Congress tells him to do and to “faithfully execute” those powers and duties.

As Steve Bannon said of Trump last week: “Now he understands how to use the full powers of the presidency.”

Bannon was speaking about how, among other things, Trump now openly uses our Justice Department as his personal bullying squad to harass perceived enemies, like the 19 million people of New York State, who will be denied easy re-entry into the country after they go overseas.

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Trump was unfazed when a federal grand jury would not go along with indicting Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director who Trump attacks because he did his job.

Barr at His Side

That means you should expect more ginned-up cases against those Trump perceives to be his enemies. Whomever the Democrats nominate in Milwaukee, their running mate and their families will all be targets so long as Bill Barr remains attorney general.

Trump also uses Justice to shield friends like the felons Roger Stone and Mike Flynn.

More than 1,100 former federal prosecutors have called on Barr to resign. The chances that Barr will step back are on a par with the Sun rising in the West tomorrow morning.

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Because of Pelosi’s strategy, the first few Republican senators have openly expressed unease that Trump thinks the Justice Department is his personal law firm and that Attorney General Barr is his consigliere, his Roy Cohn. The comments by Republican senators are not much, but they’re not nothing, either.

More House Investigations

Count on continuing House investigations designed not just to expose wrongdoing, but also to open the first real cracks in the wall of Republican submission to Trumpism. And don’t be surprised if some whistleblower or leaked document shows Barr or his loyalists breaking the law—the way Richard Nixon’s pals John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst did and became the first U.S. attorneys general forced to take up residence in federal prisons.

Pelosi’s strategy has also made Trump so toxic that qualified people with government experience shun this administration. He had a hard time from the start but now anyone with a thought to their future career wants to avoid the stain of Trump on their resumes.

Obsequious Trump minions Hope Hicks and John McEntee are now back at the White House, a clear sign that Trump can only attract the worst people to the White House.

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McEntee was forced out in 2018 because he couldn’t get a security clearance over concerns about his gambling habits. His financial disclosure statement never won approval. So McEntee may again be forced out.

And we’ve seen former aides turn on Trump. There was Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil CEO who Trump chose as his first secretary of state. But it was not until after the impeachment proceedings that Trump’s former chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, turned on Trump.

What we are seeing in real life is Shelley’s imaginative 1820 tragedy “Prometheus Unbound,” with Trump in the role of the vengeful Jupiter, who loses all his godly powers as his exalted friends turn on him.

Tied Republicans to Trump

Republican leaders are highly unlikely to turn on Trump.  But Pelosi has insured that they will pay a price for defending what will be ever worse conduct by Trump in the months ahead. They are tied to Trump and cannot easily get a political divorce, thanks to Pelosi’s strategy, without openly saying they made a terrible mistake in failing to convict and remove Trump from office.

Fellow Democrats who complain that Pelosi slow-walked impeachment and then agreed to proceed on just two articles instead of a kitchen sink of charges have missed her long-term strategy, which continues to play out to the Democrats’ advantage.

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By forcing impeachment over national security, Pelosi maneuvered leading Republican senators into a choice between breaking with Trump or spreading Kremlin propaganda to help Trump. Pelosi’s strategy put the lie to 75 years of Republican claims to be worried about the Kremlin.

By showing that concern about Moscow was a fraud, Pelosi also showed that putting protection of Trump ahead of love of our country is the policy of GOP leaders.

The only question remaining: Are the Democrats savvy enough to get that plain and simple message across to voters and to give the Democrats control of the White House, the Senate and the House in 2020.

Don’t count on the rest of the party to be as smart as Pelosi, but hope they absorb her wisdom.

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