This post has been updated.
There are a few things common to all presidents, whichever party they come from. They all think they get unfair media coverage. They all feel like prisoners of the White House and wish they could just go for a walk by themselves or head down to the corner bar. And they all chafe at the constraints on their power, the fact that despite occupying what appears to be the most powerful office in the world, there are all kinds of forces, institutions and people they can’t control and that limit their ability to do what they want.
Few presidents have felt those constraints more acutely than Donald Trump, who spent his professional life leading a private company (with no board of directors watching over him), who plainly views rules and laws as something only little people have to worry about, and who knew almost nothing about how government actually works before taking the job. The idea that some lowly member of Congress can tell him what he can or can’t do is positively infuriating to him. Knowing this, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently asked him to delay the State of the Union address until the government shutdown has been resolved; as we all learned, without Congress’s permission, the president can’t give the speech.
And of all the things to keep him from doing, this is among the most painful. At no other moment will Trump have the entire country’s eyes trained on him, with an hour or more to say what he likes and bask in the pomp of the ceremony and the adulation of his servile party. So this will not stand:
President Trump said Wednesday that he is pressing ahead with plans to deliver his State of the Union address at the Capitol next week, despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s request that he postpone the speech amid the partial government shutdown.
In a letter to Pelosi, Trump dismissed the California Democrat’s concerns about security due to the shutdown.
“It would be so very sad for our country if the State of the Union were not delivered on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location!” he said.
It was unclear how Trump would address lawmakers Jan. 29 as the House and Senate must pass a concurrent resolution for a joint session of Congress to hear the president.
Pelosi just responded with a terse letter of her own, telling him in no uncertain terms that the speech will not go forward until he agrees to end the government shutdown:
“I am writing to inform you that the House of Representatives will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the President’s State of the Union address in the House Chamber until government has opened,” Pelosi wrote to Trump. “Again, I look forward to welcoming you to the House on a mutually agreeable date for this address when government has been opened.”
One imagines a dramatic scene as Trump arrives at the House and is told that the speaker is not granting him permission to deliver his address. What happens then? Will he push past everyone (though presumably only Republicans will have shown up), climb up on the dais and start talking? Among other things, Pelosi controls the microphones and the TV cameras, so there wouldn’t be much point.
So what is he actually up to? I’d refer you to this excellent article in Tuesday’s Post from Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey, which describes how throughout his career Trump has employed a particular mode of negotiation: “He creates — or threatens to create — a calamity, and then insists he will address the problem only if his adversary capitulates to a separate demand.”
That is precisely what is happening with the shutdown right now. Trump created the calamity, then demanded his wall to bring it to an end. In return, he offered a temporary reprieve for “dreamers” — the very ones whose future he put in jeopardy when he tried to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It’s like me stealing your car, then saying if you give me a bunch of money, I’ll give it back to you, but only temporarily.
It’s much like how Trump used to deal with vendors and contractors as a builder: Order the work, then when it’s done, refuse to pay for it and eventually offer them some fraction of what he had agreed to pay in the first place. They often gave in because they were small-business owners who couldn’t match his legal resources and needed the money they were owed.
The State of the Union address is of far less practical consequence than the shutdown, but Trump is being driven by the same impulses. Except Pelosi turned things around on him, exercising her own power to deprive him of something he wanted. You can argue that Pelosi was being petty, though we contend that given the magnitude of the shutdown crisis it was perfectly appropriate for the SOTU to be delayed until the government reopens. But either way, it was utterly intolerable for him.
Trump has an evident need to dominate everyone around him, not just to get what he wants but to show that he’s the big man, the one who deserves everyone’s attention and regard. The flip side is that those in his favor must be almost comically obsequious (as his staff and Cabinet have learned), and those he opposes must be not just beaten but humiliated. (“Who’s going to pay for the wall? Mexico!”) Becoming president has not dimmed that need at all; if anything, he feels it more urgently than ever.
When Pelosi poked him in the way she did, he had to reassert his dominance, to make sure everyone knows that he's the one who decides if the State of the Union happens, not her. The trouble is that in this case, she does get to decide. Given what we know about her, it's unlikely that the threat to just show up is going to make her back down.
I’ve argued that for all his self-regard Trump is actually a dreadful negotiator, but this episode shows that it goes further than just being bad at getting what he wants. A negotiation with Trump might not just fail, it can turn into a catastrophe. We’ve already suffered through a few of them, and in the next two years, with Democrats running the House and the special counsel breathing down his neck, Trump will feel more and more constrained. In response, he’s likely to create more crises and more chaos, in the hope that he can emerge from it all on top.