Whether consciously or unconsciously, it does sometimes appear like President Trump is deliberately sabotaging the congressional Republicans’ chances of holding onto their majorities. Walter Shapiro makes that case and he succeeds in pointing out how Trump might benefit from having new enemies to use as foils. But Shapiro seriously underplays the threat that Democratic majorities would pose to his survival in office.
On the plus side, Trump is having a hard time deflecting blame onto the Democrats for the simple reason that they have so little power to thwart him, but that problem would be eliminated completely if he had to negotiate with Democrats to keep the government operating or pass any of his agenda. In a vacuum, his reelection prospects would be enhanced if he could point to any unfulfilled promises or outstanding national problems and say somewhat convincingly that the Democratic Party was blocking him. Shapiro even puts this in amusing reality television terms:
Since Trump seemingly judges his presidency by the arc of reality television, a Democratic Congress would bring on a new cast of characters for the coming season. Paul Ryan has already announced his departure from the Trump Show and the tight-lipped Mitch McConnell never offered much star power. In contrast, Pelosi and Schumer come across as veteran character actors who can play villains or comic foils to Trump’s greatness.
Of course, we don’t live in a vacuum and the Democrats will do a number of things if they gain control of one or both chambers of Congress that President Trump won’t like and probably won’t survive.
The number one thing the Democrats will do is hold committee hearings. They will have hearings almost every day Congress is in session and these will be designed to make the news. There is barely a cabinet officer in Trump’s administration who hasn’t behaved in a scandalous manner, so they’re collectively like ducks on a pond. On Monday the Democrats can expose Ben Carson, Tuesday it might be Betsy DeVos’s turn, and Wednesday and Thursday can be devoted to Wilbur Ross and Ryan Zinke. Steve Mnuchin can have a whole week to himself, and Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen can have a ball explaining why they locked children in cages and lost their parents.
They can also bring in witnesses from the intelligence community to explain the nefarious acts of the North Koreans and Russians and the total lack of any action by the administration to protect the integrity of elections or to commit to the collective security of our allies in Europe and the Far East.
They can bring in scientists, economists and other experts to tear Trump administration policies and pronouncements to shreds. They can bring in tear-jerking victims of their gun policies, trade policies, environmental policies and opioid and other health policies.
The intelligence committees can bring witnesses that the Republicans refused to call, and have testimony in public that the Republicans insisted be private. They can also control the time and the thrust of these interviews, while compelling the production of records the Republicans protected from exposure.
Trump might gain fresh foils but he’ll lose his monopoly on the narrative.
If the Democrats win control of both houses of Congress, they’ll be able to pass legislation. They’ll have to decide whether to keep the legislative filibuster in the Senate. If they keep it, they’ll get to blame the Republicans for using it and if they do away with it they can put things on the president’s desk that will be politically painful to veto.
On the legislative front, it’s also important to consider that Trump has to at least feign an interest in working with the Democrats. In theory, he might be able to get some things done, like a big infrastructure bill that he could use to pitch his reelection. If he won’t even try or pretend to try to work with the Democrats, there will be a cost to that. And if he decides that he needs some accomplishments, he will have to soften his tone and sell compromise to his base, which will also come with a cost. More likely, the government will go back into shutdown mode.
And then there’s the Mueller investigation. If the Democrats take control of the House and Mueller delivers the kind of report we anticipate he will deliver, then impeachment proceedings will commence in the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They will bring in all kinds of expert witnesses to explain why the president has done everything from obstructing justice to violating the emoluments clause to committing bank and wire fraud. And, then there’s the large matter of a criminal conspiracy to win an election with the help of (among other things) documents stolen by an adversarial power.
The Mueller report will be a long, dry document. It will make for compelling reading for those who bother to read such things, but it will take televised congressional hearings to bring the thing to life for the majority of the American people. Trump will send out his attack dogs to try to distract as many people as he can, but his minions and his tweets will be no match for the video produced during impeachment hearings.
The Republicans are certainly inclined to protect the president, but if they can’t control the narrative, they’ll find themselves constantly retreating from one untenable position to another. Trump can’t stick to a story so Republican congresspeople won’t be able to mount a sustainable line of talking points. In any case, the whole spectacle will be an exercise in exposing and exploding one lie that Trump has told after another, often with the help of direct testimony from people who served on his campaign or in his administration.
Does Trump think this is all worth it just so he can have a new cast of villains or comic foils for the coming season?
Maybe he does think that. It’s hard to say how grounded in reality the guy really is, and it’s possible that he simply doesn’t understand the stakes. For example, Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report in the New York Times that the president believes he should sit for an interview with Mueller’s investigators and that he’ll be able to convince them that they’ve been conducting “a witch hunt.” His lawyers have been unsuccessful in persuading him against this or in explaining that he should stop attacking the special counsel’s office because he’s currently more at risk of impeachment than criminal indictment:
Mr. Trump believes that he needs a daily drumbeat of criticisms against the investigation in order to sway public opinion in his favor. His lawyers have told him he has no personal legal exposure and that the only threat to him would be impeachment proceedings if the Democrats win control of the House in November.
If he listens to his lawyers at all, he knows that he doesn’t want the Democrats in control of Congress, but there’s plenty of evidence that he doesn’t take legal advice well or with any consistency. It could be that he wants a new cast for the next season and doesn’t realize that the new cast may be so bad that the next season will get cancelled.