The lexicon of presidential denials and non-denial denials of impropriety and illegality is replete with memorable one-liners. And on Wednesday, President Trump offered a new one: “I don’t do cover-ups.”
The day began with House Democrats meeting to discuss what to do about Trump’s refusal to turn over documents and witnesses that House committees had subpoenaed. The administration’s stonewalling had prompted more members of the caucus to urge the House Judiciary Committee to begin impeachment proceedings (a call that one iconoclastic Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, joined). But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has been cool to the idea, preferring instead to do more investigations into Trump’s behavior.
After the meeting ended, Pelosi told reporters that Democrats were actually making progress on some fronts in extracting information from the administration. But then she lowered the boom.
“We do believe that it’s important to follow the facts,” Pelosi said. “We believe that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States. And we believe the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up. In a cover-up.”
Not long thereafter, Pelosi and other top congressional Democrats went to the White House for a meeting on what’s supposed to be a bold bipartisan effort to upgrade infrastructure. Awkward! Trump walked in, delivered an ultimatum, then walked out.
“Instead of walking in happily into a meeting, I walk in to look at people that had just said that I was doing a cover-up,” Trump said at a hastily assembled news conference. “I don’t do cover-ups.”
Good, that’s settled. Oh, wait….
Trump claims that he was fully transparent with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation (although he declined to be interviewed by Mueller), and that Democrats are seeking to redo the probe because it didn’t produce the results they wanted. Yet he’s obviously not being transparent now, and Mueller left some issues unresolved, particularly whether Trump obstructed justice.
Hence the fight over records and testimony, raising significant questions about presidential immunity, the balance of powers, executive privilege and Congress’ authority to investigate. Trump’s declaration that he would fight each and every congressional subpoena was an overstep, but some of the document demands from House Democrats seem like oversteps too.
Regardless, these fights will probably be resolved by the courts, where they should be. In the meantime, though, Trump and congressional Democrats have to find a way to get their work done.
The president sounded some discouraging notes on that front at Wednesday’s news conference.
“I’ve said from the beginning, right from the beginning, that you probably can’t go down two tracks,” Trump said, according to a White House transcript. “You can go down the investigation track, and you can go down the investment track or the track of ‘Let’s get things done for the American people.’”
In other words, Trump can’t compartmentalize. “I walked into the room and I told Sen. [Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] and Speaker Pelosi, ‘I want to do infrastructure, I want to do it more than you want to do it.,” Trump said. “But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with.”
Trump has issued this warning before, most notably in his State of the Union speech this year: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” But my guess is that it’s just pique, not an actual plan of action. He takes too much pride in accomplishing things as president to take the rest of his term off, waiting for the Democrats to let up.
Because they’ve found a sensitive spot in Trump’s armor, and they’re going to keep jabbing at it.
12:45 p.m.: This post was updated with fuller quotes from President Trump, courtesy of a new White House transcript.