Democrats condemning Trump, even in a formal way, may not seem that interesting on its face. But calling for the resolution is a politically smart maneuver by Pelosi, for a couple of reasons.
She has recently been accused by her House Democratic colleagues of not being tough enough on Trump. Despite her opposition, 85 Democrats want to start impeachment proceedings against Trump, which is more than one-third of all of House Democrats. Pelosi has so far kept the lawmakers that matter most — those leading the committees handling investigations into Trump — to stay the course. But her no-impeachment stance has bred tension between her and some of her caucus’s more liberal members.
This resolution gives Democrats an outlet to publicly reprimand the president. A resolution is a symbolic vote — it carries with it no legislative weight, and it can’t oust the president — but sometimes in Congress, symbolism matters. These Democrats will go down in the history books as leading a chamber of Congress to condemn the tweets of the president of the United States. That’s a first.
But the resolution may have more politically potent ramifications for House Republicans. They will be forced to choose between what for them are a couple of politically bad options: vote for the resolution in what will be seen as unequivocal rebuke of Trump’s words, or vote against it in what could be seen as a tacit approval of the sentiments he expressed in those tweets.
Republicans don’t even want to talk about Trump’s tweets, much less vote on them. The majority of them have so far not weighed in; only one Republican lawmaker was on the record criticizing them the day Trump sent them, though more condemned the language to varying degrees throughout the day Monday. Some who have condemned what Trump said waited for international outrage to accumulate before they chimed in, and many of those who have are Republicans with little to lose (such as those not up for reelection).
But unless they’re retiring, all House Republicans are up for reelection next year. And it’s pretty easy to see a “no” vote on this resolution being featured in attack ads against moderate Republicans: When Trump told women of color to “go back” to their countries, so-and-so congressman wouldn’t vote to condemn it.
Republicans could try to argue that Pelosi is just playing politics with this vote, that it’s unnecessary, and so that’s why they’re voting “no.” That’s what they’ll say when House Democrats are expected to vote this week to hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt over ignoring a congressional subpoena to testify about the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
There’s plenty of room for debate on whether holding Trump officials in contempt is the right response to a report that didn’t officially accuse Trump of committing a crime. (Some nuance.) But these tweets are different: They are Trump’s own words. Current and former Republican members of Congress have called Trump’s tweets “spiteful,” “unacceptable,” “vile” and “offensive.” One Republican member of the House said they were “racist.”
Trump doubled down on them Monday in front of the cameras. “If you’re not happy, you can leave,” he said.
In addition, the resolution is smartly worded. It doesn’t ask the House to condemn the president wholesale, but rather these specific tweets.
How do House Republicans vote against that? Those who have tried to argue the president didn’t do anything wrong with these tweets have been in the painful position of arguing that Trump didn’t say what he did.
Pelosi has been on the defensive lately, concerned that a blooming impeachment push from her party and a 2020 presidential field moving to the left will damage Democrats’ chances of holding on to the House next year. Now, she’s trying to shore up her chances by using her powers to take maximum political advantage of Trump’s controversy.