Conflict and Accountability

I have long viewed the Trump administration as a reactionary three-act play. I described Act I as an “orgy of norm destruction enabled by congressional Republicans boxed in politically by their embrace of an outlaw administration,” and felt Act II would be characterized by discovery, where Democrats — newly armed with their congressional majority — would offer the country “a clear and comprehensive narrative built around testimony and facts uncovered by multiple House committees” that Donald Trump is “a lawless crime boss who tramples on the interests of the country to enrich himself.” Act III, when it arrived, would bring the resolution, “a denouement where conflict is certain and accountability is possible.” It would “end either in renewal or chaos, the likelihood of either having been determined by the course of Act II.”

When the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump in the penultimate legislative act of 2019, Act II came to a close with an accountability moment that has only two direct precedents in American history. The kid from Queens who spent a lifetime lamenting his rejection by New York’s cultural elite has finally landed in an exclusive club: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Impeachment will be the first line of his obituary and frame his presidency in American Government textbooks. 

But it was a partisan vote that once again revealed divisions without a common factual underpinning, leaving the moment unresolved and the fallout uncertain. We do not know if impeachment will be the first step toward renewal or expedite a descent into chaos, but there is every reason to surmise that the path ahead will be especially difficult because of how badly Trump will react to this week’s turn of events. The day after the 2018 wave election, in consideration of how House Democrats would use their majority, I wrote that if Democrats pick their investigative battles carefully, “there will finally be scrutiny. Donald Trump is not used to scrutiny. I rather suspect he will dislike it.” 

That is turning out to be an understatement. In telling Donald Trump that — no — he cannot abuse his power and obstruct congress without consequence, the House of Representatives did something that possibly no one else in his life has done. If you are a student of human nature, you don’t need to be a psychologist to conclude that he is not handling it well. And if you are a psychologist, you probably recognize as delusional the behavior exhibited by a president whose attachment to conspiracy theories is evidence of a pathological “detachment from reality,” compounded in its effects by the injury felt by his supporters who view Trump as their protector. The fear is that he — and they — will want to hurt those who have hurt him.

No one in politics understands this psychology better than Nancy Pelosi. As a tactical matter, her decision to withhold the articles of impeachment from the Senate as a bargaining chip to compel testimony at the trial is nothing short of brilliant. When viewed simply through a political lens, Pelosi appears to be executing a delay strategy over a trial many Republicans would like to avoid. But analysts who look at her actions through a political lens overlook the psychological dimension that Pelosi has used to stunning effect in her dealings with the narcissist king. Far from letting Republican senators off the hook, she is turning up the heat on a president who craves exoneration. As that need grows to uncontainable proportions, Pelosi knows Trump will relentlessly demand something — anything — be done to give him relief. This may or may not result in John Bolton testifying in January, but it gives Pelosi leverage she would not have in negotiations with an emotionally balanced adversary and places intense pressure on Senate Republicans to find a way to accommodate Trump’s demands for immediate vindication. It improves the odds that Democrats will have input to the rules of a Senate trial or, alternately, be able to dismiss as inconsequential a show hearing that does not include live testimony from the White House aides that seven in ten Americans believe is critical to a fair procedure

Pelosi’s gambit also escalates a confrontation with an aggrieved irrational actor. It bolsters the risk that his behavior will become more unhinged. This was unavoidable as soon as it became clear that House Democrats were going to stand up to him. But the alternative would have been worse. It’s hard to see how avoiding confrontation would have accomplished anything other than fuel the feeling in Trump that he is unstoppable and can get away with anything.

Conflict with an unstable president was always going to be a dangerous consequence of Democrats pressing their case that Trump poses an immediate threat to the Constitution and the country. It is the unavoidable price of accountability.