A few weeks ago, when French Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud stepped down, he gave a series of exit interviews suggesting that escalating a feud with Donald Trump would never work. He explained to Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh that after Trump criticized French President Emmanuel Macron, “people called me from Paris to say, ‘What should we do?’ My answer was clear: ‘Nothing.’ Do nothing because he will always outbid you. Because he can’t accept appearing to lose. You have restraint on your side, and he has no restraint on his side, so you lose. It is escalation dominance.”
Araud might have been correct with respect to French diplomacy, but Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as House speaker would appear to represent a significant counterexample. Trump escalated his dispute with Pelosi (D-Calif.) over border-wall funding into the longest government shutdown in history. Politically, Trump lost that showdown, and lost badly. Is Pelosi the politician who cannot be dominated through escalation?
We are about to find out. On Wednesday, Trump decided to reprise his government shutdown strategy. Instead of a scheduled meeting with Democratic leadership on infrastructure, Trump decided to lash out after reading that Pelosi said the president has engaged in a “coverup.” As my Post colleague Anne Gearan described it:
Trump had decided, with buy-in from his staff, to essentially ambush Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others, according to accounts of the events from White House and congressional officials. The Democrats had been invited for a sit-down on what both parties say is the pressing need for a funding plan for roads, bridges and so forth. Rather than cancel the meeting, the White House let Pelosi and the others walk into the trap. Shortly before 11 a.m., press secretary Sarah Sanders suddenly alerted the staff to prepare the Rose Garden for a news conference at 11:20 a.m.
Trump stage-managed events from there.
The reporting on this is a bit unclear. ABC and the Associated Press both suggest that some of Trump’s staff were not on board with this strategy. Gearan’s reporting suggests, however, that in contrast to previous Trump tantrums, this one was slightly more calculated. Impromptu temper tantrums usually do not involve printed placards.
So what is going on? The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein suspects that this is a case of Trump’s theory of victory resting on his certainty that he has escalation dominance:
It seems that Trump and Republican political strategists have reached pretty much the same conclusion as Pelosi and the rest of Democratic leadership: impeaching Trump would backfire and be a tremendous political gift. Were Democrats to pursue impeachment, it would suck up all the oxygen in Washington and allow Trump to wrap up all accusations against him into an impeachment gambit that does not have any public support.
This assumes that Pelosi would take the bait and accede to an unpopular impeachment inquiry — and let’s be clear, right now impeachment is unpopular. There are two reasons, however, that it might not play out this way.
The first is that Pelosi knows these dynamics better than Trump, and will therefore resist any escalation that would be politically costly for Democrats. Politico’s John Bresnehan and Burgess Everett reported after Trump’s staged blowup that it might have helped Pelosi’s bargaining position: “For Pelosi, the timing is perfect. As the drumbeat for impeachment grows within her caucus, she can argue that what they’re doing is already working. Trump clearly doesn’t know how to respond to the barrage of Democratic investigations; they’re winning in the courts and he’s throwing fits. So why bother with impeachment, especially when Democrats know that a GOP-run Senate isn’t going to remove him from office?”
Indeed, the rest of the day’s events seemed to bolster Pelosi’s hypothesis, as more polls came out showing Trump’s weak numbers, and more court decisions came out rebuffing the president’s attempts to thwart Congress.
The second reason this might not play out in Trump’s favor is that public attitudes toward impeachment might shift if Trump continues to stonewall Congress. Every time Trump has escalated a dispute with Democrats in Congress, he has come out on the losing side of public opinion. During the shutdown, the majority of the public viewed Trump as the instigator of the escalation. The question is how Trump’s threat to not cooperate at all with Congress unless House Democrats unilaterally surrender their oversight function will be viewed. Will it be seen as a response to Democrats or an exercise in escalation?
I argued back in January that “Democratic leaders likely prefer Trump’s political death by a thousand subpoenas rather than impeachment.” Everything Pelosi has done since then confirms that preference ordering. My guess is that she will continue to resist impeachment, arguing that the 2020 election is the best way to remove Trump from office. The longer she resists, however, the more likely Trump will try to provoke Congress with executive overreach. That effort, however, might tilt the playing field even more in the Democrats’ direction.
Trump’s theory of victory is that if he triggers an impeachment inquiry, its unpopularity will rebound to his favor. What Trump has to do to trigger it, however, is very likely to subvert his own theory.