House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer left empty-handed from their White House meeting with President Donald Trump on Wednesday. And so did the president, who failed, yet again, to gain a commitment to fund a symbolic wall on the nation’s southern border.
The Democrats had appeared together on camera the night before, responding to the latest jumble of lies, fear-mongering and pure laziness (making an argument is too much work, and making one logically or persuasively is well nigh impossible) that passes for presidential discourse.
While Pelosi is pretty brilliant at leading the House, neither she nor Schumer are very good at public communication. But the problem with their response to Trump Tuesday night wasn’t so much what they said. It was the same problem that plagued them in their meeting the following day: They were talking to the wrong person.
To borrow a construct from the classical orator Marco Rubio, let’s dispense with the notion that President Donald Trump knows exactly what he’s doing. Because he really, really doesn’t.
Trump is not in control of Washington. He’s not even in control of his own administration, where officials simply ignore his diktats until his feeble attention shrivels. Trump is not in charge even of the West Wing of his White House, where his own aides regularly leak embarrassing details of his ignorance and buffoonery and his recently departed chief of staff defined his personal achievements in terms of repeatedly foiling the boss’s half-baked (and not quite half-legal) schemes. And, of course, the reason Trump still doesn’t have a wall is that his fellow Republicans refused for two years to fund one.
With Democrats in charge of the House, Pelosi should stop wasting time and energy on the reality-television president and deal instead with the closest thing we’ve got to the real thing: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Increasing pressure on Trump to end the government shutdown, which he backed into without a suspicion of a hint of something that resembled a strategy, makes a certain amount of sense. At least it does if your goal is to embarrass and expose the president. But Pelosi surely must recognize that on both the presidential embarrassment and exposure fronts, the returns are diminishing.
In any case, identifying McConnell as the real Republican power in the federal government, and treating him accordingly, is the most humiliating thing she can do to Trump. In addition to being satisfying politics, it’s highly practical.
Trump, as my colleague Timothy O’Brien points out, never mastered far less demanding jobs. He will forever be an agent of chaos, and an enemy of competence.
But the House and Senate don’t need a president for budget negotiations. They can work out a compromise between them and send it over to Trump, who can lie about what it means and sign it into law. Ann Coulter won’t like it. But nobody elected her, and, realistically, that may be the best Trump can do.
McConnell doesn’t want to antagonize the president’s tribe, which, as one Trump supporter eloquently explained to the New York Times, wants to be sure that Trump is “hurting the people he needs to be hurting.” But McConnell’s tribe is smaller – 53 senators – and not all of them are as solemnly invested in buttressing the racial hierarchy and punishing their perceived enemies as the MAGA troops tend to be.
Some of McConnell’s Republican colleagues are looking at an uncertain path to re-election in their states. They are eager to get the government open, appear sensible, moderate and competent, and move on.
Pelosi should put the onus for doing so squarely and completely on McConnell – not Trump. After all, when two parents have a squabble, they don’t sit around and wait for their 2-year-old to resolve it.
The House speaker should make it clear that Trump is not the decisive factor in the dispute. McConnell is. For reason to prevail, or at least to have a chance, McConnell will have to take the reins while Trump howls.
Can the chaos chief executive veto what Congress sends to him? Of course, he can. But figuring out how to avoid that outcome is really not Pelosi’s problem. It’s President McConnell’s.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.