President Trump operates in the moment, where every encounter necessitates that he be perceived as the winner. Insofar as his words have no relation to action and his aversion to facts is so strong, he will say practically anything to get himself out of a jam. Hence, we saw him claim ownership of the shutdown because in that moment, facing adversaries and performing in front of the cameras, he thought that might help him look like a tough guy.
Sometimes Trump’s outbursts are spontaneous and others planned, but they are invariably ill-conceived. He operates in a world of mobster rhetoric and movie-style dialogue in which words only have to sound tough. Logic is immaterial; thinking through the consequences of his threats is unimaginable.
So it was at Tuesday’s State of the Union, when Trump uttered this bizarre statement:
An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just does not work that way. We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad.
As a preliminary matter, the economy and investigations are unrelated — unless the latter turn up evidence of massive misconduct, fraud or criminality that might temporarily upset the markets. But that, of course, isn’t a reason not to investigate where circumstances warrant. Markets recover, while Trump’s presidency might not in such a situation.
Moreover, how is Trump’s scenario supposed to work? Congress passes a bipartisan infrastructure bill and, what, Trump won’t sign it while the House investigates potentially unconstitutional emoluments? Congress passes a wholly popular drug cost-reduction bill and Trump vetoes it because Congress is investigating his inhumane family-separations policy?
Trump’s threat is an empty one, and one that serves to highlight his inability to stop investigations rather than his ability to withstand them — or confidence they won’t amount to anything. As Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) put it during an appearance on CNN on Wednesday morning, "He’s got something to hide. Because if he had nothing to hide, he’d just shrug his shoulders and let these investigations go forward. He’s afraid of them.”
On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) admonished him for making a threat in the House. Once more, she got the better of him.
Democrats know Trump’s bluff is absurd, and his congressional allies know it, too. Only the lowest of his low-information base thrills to the sound of his words.
Ultimately, as is so often the case (with the wall and shutdown, most especially), Trump’s own supporters will be disappointed. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Trump perhaps thinks he’ll worry about that another day. For the brief satisfaction of spitting out a nonsensical soundbite, Trump sets himself up for embarrassment and disappointment.
In many ways, that is the story of his presidency. A man entirely ignorant about policy and governance playacts his way through his presidency, using language that dense people think is smart and ignorant people imagine sounds erudite. The problem for Trump remains — reality.
Today and tomorrow and for many days afterward, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and House investigators will call witnesses, gather evidence and probe wrongdoing. If the facts and the law are on their side, Trump and his cronies will be powerless to stop them and will by one means or another be held accountable. All the hollers of “Witch hunt!” didn’t save Paul Manafort from conviction on eight counts or spare Michael Cohen from a jail sentence.
Trump and a cynical media might think that “nothing matters” and that Trump’s words are without consequence. His right-wing media bubble that fills his brain during hours of “executive time” will tell him comforting lies and reassure him that he is “winning.” However, the midterms, sinking approval ratings, more than 30 indictments and the inevitable progress of the Mueller investigation should remove all doubt that reality matters. It’s Trump’s words that don’t.