Trump's new deal: Don't bet on Democrats taking it

Analysis: The president said Wednesday he would only work with Democrats on a legislative agenda if they stop investigating him.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden on May 22, 2019.
President Trump said Wednesday that he would not work with Democrats in Congress on any legislation until "these phony investigations" are over.Andrew Harnik / AP

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is putting himself first and Americans second — as long as the House is investigating him.

During a brief private meeting at the White House on Wednesday, Trump slammed Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for accusing him of engaging in "a cover-up," told her and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that he wouldn't work with them on policy issues important to the American public while he is under investigation and walked out to the Rose Garden to apprise the media of his decision not to work with Democrats on legislation.

"I want to do infrastructure," he said he told the top Democratic lawmakers. "But you know what, you can't do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with."

Pelosi, who has been urging her caucus to take a methodical approach to investigating and possibly impeaching Trump, said later, "I pray for the president of the United States, and I pray for the United States of America."

Republicans said Wednesday that Trump's tack isn't helpful for policy-making or his re-election, even though it puts pressure on Pelosi because many of the rank-and-file members of her Democratic caucus want to show voters they can govern.

"Trump just asserted that he's putting Americans second to his impeachment troubles," Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor who supports the president, said in a text message. "If he won't work with Dems on legislation for the people until they stop investigating, that is beyond troubling. He needs to focus on progress for everyday Americans."

It's the opposite of the approach President Bill Clinton pursued during the House Republican investigations of him, when he worked with GOP leaders in Congress to enact deficit-reduction plans, a rewrite of the nation's welfare system and other laws.

And while the new House Democratic majority is eager to legislate so that freshman members from swing districts can demonstrate they are making progress in Washington before the 2020 election, Republicans said the president should be able to handle both tracks at the same time.

"Congress has a responsibility to both conduct oversight and legislate. The administration has a responsibility to govern," Michael Steel, a former aide to then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in an email. "And 'my way or the highway' is a lousy infrastructure plan, but that's what the president told the American people today."

Eberhart said it makes sense that Trump wants to squeeze Pelosi on impeachment but suggested there are better ways to do it than announcing that he'll hold public priorities hostage.

"I get why Trump is pissed, but if you're [president] they're going to relentlessly attack your castle. And you have to optically be focused on doing good for the voters," he said. "Pelosi is between a rock and a hard place. She knows voters don't care about impeachment. But her members want the president's blood. The president is just taking advantage of Pelosi's predicament."

The episode was reminiscent of Trump's border-security meeting with Pelosi and Schumer late last year in which he said that he would be proud to own a government shutdown if Democrats refused to fund his promised border wall.

They did, and a five-week partial shutdown ensued. When he agreed to re-open closed agencies, he had not gotten the funding he sought for the wall and instead re-appropriated existing funds for construction — a move that prompted a series of lawsuits from petitioners who claimed it was an unconstitutional abuse of his power.

At the time, it was mostly federal workers who were the hostages. But now, Trump has moved on to anyone who wants to see more federal spending on infrastructure, lower prescription drug prices or new trade deals that he has negotiated.

Pelosi's take is that Trump threw the game board in the air because he didn't want to get a deal done in the first place.

"I knew the president was not serious about infrastructure and would find a way out," she said in the moments after he left the meeting, according to a Democratic aide.

The truth is that, whether Trump wants to or not, he would have difficulty getting conservatives in his own party to sign off on any spending bill of any kind before the 2020 election. And, after he's bashed U.S. trade relationships so mightily, even a Trump-negotiated trade deal is a tough vote for many Republicans in Congress.

What he's left with after Wednesday is not only a focus in Congress on investigations but a self-imposed moratorium on legislation. That is, he has ensured that the next year and a half will be even more about him and even less about the interests of the American public.

And, by saying the quiet part out loud again, he's decided to own it.