Suing a committee chairman and his own accounting firm. Telling people who don’t work for him anymore that they can’t testify to Congress. Having his personal lawyer tell the Treasury Department not to release Trump’s tax returns to Congress. These are all actions President Trump has taken against Congress in the past few days, evidence that he’s going full-court to stop lawmakers from investigating him.
It’s an unprecedentedly brazen move for a president. But Joshua Huder, a fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, says it’s actually a sign of Trump’s weakness.
Past presidents have negotiated behind the scenes with Congress when they don’t want to turn over information. They’ve relied on influential allies on Capitol Hill to help make their case. Trump is forced to take the most extreme measures because he doesn’t have enough soft power to do that, Huder argues. As a result, Trump is forcing himself into high-profile legal and political battles he has a real risk of losing.
"The president lacks a lot of informal modes of influence,” Huder said, “and he can't convince the allies he does have."
Trump’s weakness has manifested itself in other ways that have cost him politically.
Trump spent nearly all of his political capital at the beginning of this year trying to get Congress to fund a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He failed when enough Republicans joined with Democrats to pass a spending bill that didn’t include the amount of money he wanted. The longest shutdown in federal government history failed to win over lawmakers to Trump’s side — or any new money for his wall. (And let’s not forget that presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigned on Mexico paying for the wall, another place where his negotiations seem to have fallen through.)
To make good on his central campaign promise, Trump declared a national emergency and took money from elsewhere to do it. The consequence? A lengthy, time-consuming legal battle that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
“Look, I expect to be sued,” he said in February when he announced the emergency declaration. “We’ll win in the Supreme Court.”
Trump is likely to lose the many legal fights he has picked with Congress over that branch of government’s right to see his tax returns and financial statements and to issue subpoenas to his former top aides. (Though to the extent this is all a delay tactic to the 2020 presidential election, Trump may succeed.)
Still, the president is engaging in extremely risky legal battles just as his support in Congress appears to be eroding, if ever so slightly.
Trump recently wanted to try again to repeal Obamacare; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused. Trump suddenly got rid of most of his top immigration officials — top Senate Republicans went on Fox News and publicly warned him to stop. He wanted to nominate Herman Cain to the Federal Reserve — pushback from Republicans had him drop the idea.
To some degree, Trump’s strong-arming tactics with Congress reflect his personality. Trump’s M.O., long before getting into politics, has been to threaten and intimidate to get his way.
“It’s a Trumpian way of negotiating,” Larry Kudlow, a Trump friend and current White House economic adviser, once said. “You knock them in the teeth and get their attention. And then you kind of work out a deal.”
But Trump would probably prefer not to have to go to such extremes with Congress right now. Instead of messaging ahead of the 2020 election, he’s forcing himself into high-profile legal battles that will keep these politically dangerous stories in the news. All because, Huder argues, he had no other choice.