OPINION — Nancy Pelosi said it not once, not twice, but three times last week. “Mr. President, you have come into my wheelhouse.”
In other words, welcome to her world. After nearly two years of Congress leaning, bending and nearly breaking in response to the president’s wrecking ball through it, the explosive whistle blower complaint against him has now put the president squarely in Pelosi’s territory of unavoidable congressional oversight.
Political analysts were quick to say that nothing much would change with Pelosi’s announcement that the House will pursue a formal impeachment inquiry against him. Without a floor vote or select committee planned in the immediate future, what would be so different?
But within moments of Pelosi’s Tuesday press conference announcing the inquiry, it was clear that everything had changed. Democrats were no longer living in Trump’s world. He was living in theirs, and specifically, in the comfort zone of Nancy Pelosi.
Before Pelosi’s decision to formally pursue possible impeachment, a single tweet from Trump would routinely derail months of careful bipartisan negotiations on any number of topics. Without Republicans willing to defy him or Democrats broadly ready to take him on, Trump’s opinion eventually become the only one that really mattered in the Capitol. Would there be gun legislation this year? Ask Trump. Would the government shut down without a spending bill? Ask Trump. Would the White House respond to a subpoena? Would the Treasury provide Trump’s tax returns? Would Corey Lewandowski get away with humiliating the House Judiciary Committee? Every question large and small seemed to be answered on the president’s terms.
Pelosi suddenly unleashed a moment so historic, even the president was no match for it. Nor will he be outside the reach of the formal mechanics of impeachment, including its statutes, precedents and procedures. Institutionalists like Pelosi embrace the workings of the oversight process like a warm hug and deploy them like a Tomahawk missile. But to a man like Trump, long driven by instinct and impulse, they seem to be the suffocating stuff of nightmares. Worse than anything, he won’t be the one calling the shots. He’ll simply respond to the shots as they come.
By Thursday morning, after less than two days in the wheelhouse, he already seemed to be unraveling. At an event for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Trump bizarrely told the audience he wanted to know who the whistleblower is, against every respected rule protecting them. Likewise, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, hit the gas on his own self-immolation. “I will be the hero!” he told The Atlantic, and warned Politico, “If I get killed now, you won’t get the rest of the story.’”
Instead of proving to America that they can obviously be trusted with the levers of government, the president and Giuliani proved the exact opposite. Should these two men be running foreign policy? Trump did get elected, so yes (and let’s agree the former New York mayor is acting on behalf of the president abroad). But should they be running foreign policy with no oversight whatsoever? That’s the real question in front of Americans today. With every rant, every tweet, every nervous itch that Trump scratches, the question becomes easier to answer.
Early Friday morning, Trump tweeted out a call for the resignation of House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff. The idea that a president would suggest that an oversight chairman resign at the top of an impeachment inquiry against him would have set off alarms among reporters and Democrats just a week ago. But on Friday, it was mostly met with a collective shrug. The news Trump used to make wasn’t news anymore. The president and his tweet were mostly ignored. There was too much to cover elsewhere, too many leads to follow on the impeachment story.
Among those leads, which Schiff will also want answers to as his committee works over the two-week recess behind closed doors, are whether the president made similar demands that the Chinese government investigate Hunter Biden during recent trade negotiations; whether Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the matter with Trump; which other conversations with world leaders are stored on the recently discovered “code word” server that stored notes on the conversation with the Ukrainian president; and what role did Attorney General William Barr play in the whistleblower complaint. Finally, what role, if any, did the vice president play in negotiations with Ukraine?
The president can tweet whatever he wants to about that (and he did all weekend and Monday morning), but it won’t make a difference.
This is the new world Trump finds himself in. Out of control of his destiny or even his day, out of his comfort zone, squarely in Nancy Pelosi’s wheelhouse.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.