Trump could help himself by staying on task
By KAREN TUMULTY | The Washington Post | Published: May 31, 2019
As President Donald Trump seeks to shut down multiple congressional probes, he has been making the argument that the continued scrutiny is getting in the way of the country’s most pressing business.
“I’ve said from the beginning — right from the beginning — that you probably can’t go down two tracks,” the president ranted after storming out of a May 22 meeting with congressional leaders that was ostensibly scheduled to discuss infrastructure. “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.”
But in fact Congress is quite capable of focusing on issues that are at the top of Americans’ priority list, even while conducting vigorous oversight. In fact, that is what it is supposed to do.
The Democratic-controlled House has been passing bills at a good clip, even as no fewer than six of its committees are investigating various questions involving the president and his administration.
They include measures to lower prescription drug costs and strengthen the Affordable Care Act and to encourage more employers to offer retirement plans. Going through their checklist of campaign promises, House Democrats have also voted to strengthen background checks of gun buyers, reduce the gender pay disparity and reauthorize the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act.
So much for what Trump calls a do-nothing party.
Meanwhile, none of these issues — or much of anything else — is being addressed in the Republican-led Senate. The only business that seems to interest Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is confirming Trump’s nominees, particularly to the courts: So far in this Congress, nominations constitute more than 70% of all Senate floor votes.
Getting things done may be Trump’s best hope of survival — as the last president who found himself in the impeachment crosshairs demonstrated. In 1998, as Bill Clinton’s presidency became engulfed in scandal surrounding his affair with a White House intern, his mastery of what was then called “compartmentalization” was tested. Day in and day out, Clinton made sure Americans saw a functioning presidency.
He and lawmakers agreed on legislation to provide $1.2 billion to reduce elementary school class sizes, which was something Clinton had promised in a State of the Union address delivered just days after the nation had heard the name Monica Lewinsky for the first time. Republicans had initially been reluctant to fund Clinton’s program, but climbed aboard as he drummed up public support.
Clinton also worked with then-Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on a bipartisan anti-tobacco bill that won the support of 13 other Republicans and fell just short of breaking a filibuster in the Senate after a four-week debate.
While Clinton raged in private about his treatment at the hands of independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the Republicans who controlled Capitol Hill, he deflected questions about the subject as he went about his business in public.
All of it paid off in steadily rising poll numbers.
He could not prevent the investigation from going forward, or Congress from trying to remove him from office. In December 1998, the House voted two articles of impeachment against him, for perjury and for obstruction of justice.
But that very week, Clinton’s job approval in the Gallup poll reached 73% — not only the highest of his presidency, but among the best recorded by any chief executive since the mid-1960s. By then, it had become clear that the charges against him would not stick in the Senate, which just under eight weeks later acquitted him.
By doing his job, Clinton saved his presidency.
Even in this polarized environment, there are still opportunities for Trump to do the same.
A big push to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure may be off the table, as much because of Republican opposition to the price tag as Democratic resistance. But many in both parties are eager for deals on some issues, such as cutting prescription drug prices and getting a disaster-relief bill passed. If there is not a budget agreement by Oct. 1, deep automatic spending cuts will hit both nondefense and defense discretionary programs.
Doing any of that, however, requires something we have yet to see from Trump — an ability to focus on his job, rather than nursing his outsize sense of victimhood with incessant tweets about “The Greatest Presidential Harassment in history.” The investigations are going to continue. Whether anything else gets done is entirely up to Trump.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.