The presidency of Donald Trump reached a new and ominous phase this week in its confrontations with opponents within the government.
Beleaguered by investigations on several fronts, the president made a show of breaking off negotiations with Democrats in Congress on an array of legislative issues and vowing he would not relent until they ended the probes.
Eyewitnesses reported that the president stormed into a much-anticipated Wednesday meeting with Democratic leaders from the Hill, denounced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for accusing him of a “cover-up” and declared further cooperation between the branches at an end. Then the reports say the president stormed back out, having not a word from the leaders or from others in the room.
What does it mean to cease cooperation? In truth, there has been precious little cooperation on the particular issues in question. The House has sought an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as various Trump tax documents and business records. It is also seeking live and public testimony from key witnesses who are current or former administration officials — including Mueller and former White House counsel Don McGahn.
The White House response has been to say “no” in nearly every case. That has led to several court proceedings, two of which have led federal judges side with Congress so far (although both rulings are being appealed).
But the struggle to date has been largely a Washington matter, a serious and even desperate confrontation to be sure — but one that seems remote from most Americans’ lives and reality.
Now, by declaring that he would no longer work with Congress on infrastructure – or on anything else of substance – the president has dramatically escalated this struggle. In his determination to pressure his antagonists to relent, he suddenly seems ready to renounce the governing obligations of his own office.
This takes the confrontation between coequal branches of government to a level far more likely to concern the interests of average citizens.
It is not surprising that the president objects to Congress’ demands for his tax and business records. Nor is it surprising that he objects to congressional committees seeking a fuller accounting of Mueller’s investigation.
The president regards the latter moves by Congress as a “do-over” of Mueller’s two-year probe, which the president regards as having exonerated him. And he sees the tax and business probes as crossing “a red line” separating his office from his personal affairs, a line that he once warned Mueller not to cross.
But to abandon negotiations on infrastructure, as well as the federal budget for the year ahead and the various trade deals hanging fire around the globe, would be to walk away from the main business of the country – the essence of the president’s job.
Should the president want to work with the Democrats in Congress? Perhaps not. But saying he cannot do so flies in the face of plain facts. Those facts include the examples we have from the performance of embattled presidents in the past.
Even when deeply enmeshed in investigations that would bruise their administrations or threaten their impeachment, other presidents have kept the necessary machinery in motion.
To take the most recent and most egregious case, President Bill Clinton was famed for what was called his “compartmentalizing” of his presidential functions. He kept negotiating with the Republicans in charge of Congress (including the often-obstreperous House Speaker Newt Gingrich) even in the throes and aftermath of his own impeachment in 1998 and 1999.
Throughout the year it took for impeachment to unfold and the remaining months of his presidency, Clinton and his White House team made progress with Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on the federal budget, achieving a projected federal budget balance and surplus – a feat not achieved in the three preceding decades nor in the two decades since.
In addition, Clinton’s second term managed to deliver a successful end to the Balkan war over Kosovo and reasonable management of foreign currency crises and other threats to the long-running stock market boom that peaked in 2000. During his second term, Clinton worked with both parties and both chambers in Congress to pass the state-based Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) and the GOP-backed repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, loosening restrictions on banks.
This and much more required considerable coordination with Congress. And Clinton remained in that mode during and after the impeachment drama. The attempt to remove him from office began late in 1997 when a long-running investigation of Clinton’s business and personal affairs as governor of Arkansas took a turn into his personal affairs in the White House. An independent counsel on the case, well-known Republican Kenneth Starr, learned of a sexual relationship between Clinton and an intern, Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton denied having had any manner of sexual contact with Lewinsky. He did so in a court deposition in January 1998 and later in front of TV cameras (“I did not have sex with that woman”). He later performed linguistic gymnastics on the issue in testimony before a grand jury in August of that year.
That eventually led to a damning report from Starr and his team, which recounted Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky in steamy detail and also described his efforts to cover it up – including by encouraging staffers to lie about what they had seen.
All efforts to negotiate a mere reprimand or censure failed, and the House voted on impeachment articles in December. The case went to trial in the Senate the following month. But despite that chamber’s Republican majority, the perjury charge got just 45 votes and the obstruction of justice charge failed on a 50-50 tie. It would have taken a two-thirds majority to remove Clinton from office.
Popular opinion seemed similarly disposed. As Starr noted in his 2018 memoir Contempt: “The [Republicans’] impeachment-or-bust mentality proved to be a boon to the president’s already soaring popularity. As portrayed day after day, the president was the victim.”
Indeed, Clinton’s approval in the Gallup Poll reached 60% after the impeachment was over. Small wonder, then, that Clinton felt comfortable making deals with a Congress controlled by the other party.
That memory, though decades in the past, surely informs some of the reluctance of Democratic leaders in the current Congress to pursue an “impeachment or bust” strategy. It is a far more vivid memory for them than the trauma that ended with President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
Nixon gave in when the House was about to impeach with a big majority and senators from his own party were advising that a two-thirds majority in their chamber would complete his removal. It was not so much the original burglary of Democratic offices at the Watergate office complex in 1972 that mattered as it was Nixon’s role in the effort to cover it all up over the next two years.
Yet in the midst of that maelstrom, Nixon in his final year in office conducted business with Congress on a range of major matters. These included the winding down of the war in Vietnam, the urgent escalation of U.S. support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East and the subsequent Arab oil embargo that quadrupled the price of crude almost overnight — the first “oil shock” of that decade. Inflation hit double digits. Congress moved to restrain the president’s use of military force and his budget freedom. Still, relationships between the branches went forward, and much of the legislation enacted was negotiated and blessed with the president’s signature.
In sum, Clinton and Nixon were both able to walk and chew gum at the same time, even if they had to do both with the bitter taste of impeachment in their mouths.
Other presidents burdened by lesser scandals have also compartmentalized in their own ways. During the Iran-Contra showdown of 1987, Ronald Reagan dealt with a joint House-Senate special investigation into an illegal arms-for-hostages scheme and moved forward with a remarkably successfully final 18 months in office — all with the cooperation of Democratic majorities in both House and Senate.
Other presidents in earlier generations were able to deal with various scandals within their administrations while keeping their eye on the essential relationship with Congress, the body that must authorize and fund the activities of the entire federal government.
So, for the current president to suggest he does not need to deal with Congress, or that the behavior of Congress has made it impossible for him to do so, runs counter to the clear lessons of history.
Not to mention the dictates of the Constitution.