The strange scenes at the White House on Wednesday appear to have made it harder for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to resist the siren song of impeachment. Pelosi suggested Thursday that Trump was in need of an “intervention” and appeared to joke (...maybe?) that his Cabinet could invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. She added later: “Maybe he wants to take a leave of absence, I don’t know.”
For those keeping score at home, Pelosi has said Trump obstructed justice, created a “constitutional crisis,” is engaged in a “coverup,” and now that he might be unwell. Given that posture — and the unlikelihood of the 25th Amendment — it’s getting more and more difficult for the speaker to argue that there isn’t a moral imperative to impeach Trump.
But is that what Trump wants?
The Associated Press reported today that Trump is “betting the future of his presidency on trying to goad Democrats into impeaching him” and that “White House officials have adopted a quasi-official policy of trying to goad Democrats into impeachment.” Pelosi, too, has said Trump is “goading us to impeach him.” When asked Thursday whether Trump wanted, on some level, to be impeached, she said, “Of course.”
Trump’s actions, whether intentional or not, have certainly made it increasingly difficult for Pelosi and her fellow Democratic leaders to stave off the impeachment fervor. He has sworn off legislating until Congress stops investigating him. He has stonewalled virtually every request and subpoena. And his legal team has adopted the bold stance that Congress doesn’t even have the right to investigate him — because there is not a “legitimate legislative purpose.” (House Democrats have scored some wins in these legal battles, but it’s still very early.)
Some legal experts have argued that there is a simple solution to this standoff: The legitimate legislative purpose could be easily satisfied by launching impeachment proceedings. Impeachment is a constitutionally protected prerogative of Congress, the logic goes, so it would become very difficult for the Trump legal team to argue that there was no legitimate legislative purpose behind the requests.
Ipso facto, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats are being baited into impeachment and may soon have no other political choice. The White House would seem to be betting if that happens, the ultimate winner would be Trump, given how little support there is right now for impeachment and how badly it turned out for Republicans in the late 1990s. (Or did it?)
The alternative explanation, of course, is the much simpler one: Trump really doesn’t want people digging into his finances and potentially obstructive actions, and he’s willing to do just about anything to try to stop them. He engaged in what the New York Times labeled “outright fraud” to obtain his father’s wealth, after all, and we already know he has been involved in hush-money payments that were found to violate campaign finance law. We know there are some skeletons in Trump’s closet because we’ve seen them.
Trump also knows an infrastructure deal or any other major legislation wasn’t going to happen, so putting a halt to governing doesn’t really change much. And perhaps he is legitimately peeved that Democrats are getting closer to impeachment and is just lashing out.
I’d offer a third explanation: Perhaps this is a bit of reverse psychology. Maybe Trump is indeed legitimately worried about how all this might turn out, but he wants Democrats to think he’s goading them into impeachment. If he makes it seem as if he’s really concerned about it and does all kinds of things to up the impeachment ante, it’ll make them believe they are walking into a trap — a trap, it bears noting, that they were already worried was a trap. (It also seems a little odd that, if this really is the secret strategy, White House officials would be telegraphing it anonymously.)
One of Trump’s greatest political skills is his ability to get his opponents to overreach. Were he to be impeached and emerge stronger from it, it would be his greatest political trick. That outcome would be anything but certain, though, and there is the real possibility that it could come at significant personal cost and reveal something that would cause Trump to lose the 2020 election.
Trump has to know that there’s not really a great option here, as does Pelosi. So maybe they’re both just winging it at this point — and recognizing that they each may be helpless to stop the impeachment train.