About 11 a.m. Wednesday, just as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a half-dozen Democrats were trying to talk about manufacturing jobs, President-elect Donald Trump began his news conference to discuss how he plans to disentangle himself from his global business empire.
Just past noon, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) went to the Senate floor to blast ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson’s answers at the confirmation hearing for the secretary of state nominee. That was about the moment news coverage was fixated on Trump’s bitter exchange with a CNN reporter.
Democrats say they have plans to adapt to the new normal of Washington — a normal in which Trump news trumps just about anything. On Wednesday, they struggled to do so.
Pelosi seemed disappointed, and even surprised, by the last question that came her way.
“I wanted to talk about jobs, jobs, jobs,” she told reporters.
Instead, she was asked about Trump, Trump, Trump — and she couldn’t resist talking about the latest scandal involving the incoming president.
In almost any other political orbit, Wednesday would have been a great day for Democrats. Republican nominees to be secretary of state and attorney general were under fire, other Cabinet nominees’ hearings were delayed and no one could explain when exactly the Republican-controlled Congress or incoming administration would repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act.
But then Trump began his long, meandering news conference in New York. He defended himself from potential business conflicts of interest and attacked the media over reports that top intelligence officials had provided him with briefing documents alleging that Russia had compiled damaging information about his personal and business practices.
While Trump did not completely blot out a busy news day on Capitol Hill, he became the sun, the moon and the stars. He consumed the news, and he made it all about himself.
That didn’t make it a good 24-hour news cycle for Republicans. But it didn’t quite feel like Democrats were in control, either.
Democrats have spent much of their time after their election defeat focusing on how to plot a new course on messaging — how to sell their ideas in the media and to the broader general public. That gets difficult when Trump goes full Trump — not just wandering into treacherous areas that few political figures like to go, but then seemingly enjoying the street fight with his opponents and the media that typically ensues.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign struggled with this dynamic from the moment she locked up the Democratic presidential nomination last spring. On some days, her top advisers in Brooklyn tried to stay above the fray and stick to their carefully planned events on the economy or education. On others, they tried to steer the candidate straight into the Trump fray, turning the nightly news into political hand-to-hand combat.
In one such instance, according to one aide from the Brooklyn team, Clinton’s communications advisers were holding a meeting on a Friday afternoon in October over emerging reports that Russian operatives had engaged in hacks of the email systems of the Democratic National Committee and her campaign aides. Another aide burst in, informing the others that The Washington Post had just published an article about Trump’s comments more than a decade ago in which he boasted about making unwanted sexual advances on women.
The next three weeks were consumed by that news — and the Clinton campaign did its part to try to keep the story alive. Yet, what initially seemed like a death blow to Trump’s campaign turned into just another in a series of intemperate statements and actions — an episode that probably distracted Democrats from talking about other issues that might have been more effective with voters.
On Wednesday, the effect was the same.
In their confirmation fights, Democrats are mostly trying to put Cabinet nominees on the defensive about positions that Trump has taken, particularly those that are outside the normal conservative orthodoxy.
Tillerson, for instance, faced repeated questions from both sides of the dais about his views on sanctions against Russia, including those recently imposed by President Obama after the elections. Trump has not made clear his position on sanctions, and Tillerson avoided the issue by saying he had not received a classified briefing on the matter.
“You don’t need a classified briefing to know what Russia has done in the past. To duck the question, and refuse to commit to continuing these sanctions is tantamount to sweeping Russia’s flouting of international norms under the rug,” Schumer said.
Matt Miller, a former adviser to Schumer and House Democratic leadership, said the party needs to work on policy proposals that can have broader appeal.
“But our main job today is to react in real time to what he’s doing and use it to reinforce our overall case against him,” Miller said. “Some days that is going to mean tearing up the thing you planned to talk about because Trump’s behavior is so egregious, it demands a response.”
Pelosi did just that, after pretending to be upset about getting a Trump question at the close of an event about working-class jobs. She was one of the eight congressional leaders who were briefed Friday by senior intelligence officials on their conclusions about Russian efforts to impact the U.S. elections in 2016.
Without getting into the details of that briefing, Pelosi said that Trump’s reluctance to criticize Putin during the campaign raised flags.
“I always wondered what the Russians have on Donald Trump,” she said.