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Trump's State of the Union address gives away the game: he fears investigations

Desperate for leverage, Trump wants Democrats to believe he's prepared to govern, but only if they look the other way on his many scandals.
Donald Trump
President Donald Trump gestures towards democrats while addressing a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (AP...

The morning after the 2018 midterm elections, Donald Trump published a curious tweet that sounded like a threat: the president wrote that if the House Democratic majority launched investigations in Trump's many scandals, Republicans would "likewise be forced to consider investigating them."

A few hours later, at a White House press conference, Trump reiterated the threat, insisting he could direct the Republican-led Senate to examine "very questionable things" Democrats have done if the new House majority conducted vigorous oversight of him. It was at this same press conference that the president dismissed the idea of working with Congress at all in the midst of investigations.

"You can't do them simultaneously, by the way," he insisted. 'Somebody says, 'Oh, you can do 'em both.' No, you can't. Because if they're doing that, we're not doing the other, just so you understand. So we won't be doing that."

In effect, Trump gave Democrats a choice between legislating and conducting oversight. Congress, in the president's mind, could tackle substantive issues or it could examine his many scandals, but it couldn't do both -- because he wouldn't allow it.

Early on in the president's State of the Union address last night, Trump adopted a similar posture.

"An economic miracle is taking place in the United States -- and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations."If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way!"

None of this was ad-libbed; what he said was exactly as it appeared in the prepared text.

To my mind, these 48 words mattered more than anything else in the president's 82-minute speech. With these three sentences, the Republican effectively gave away the game: Donald Trump is afraid of what investigations might produce.

On the surface, the details of the president's rhetoric fell somewhere between wrong and odd. There is, for example, nothing "miraculous" about the current strength of the economy.

What's more, Trump's argument is predicated on the idea that scrutinizing his scandals would interrupt economic growth. That's absurd. Congressional investigations of Bill Clinton's scandals in the late 1990s had no effect on the economy -- it was stronger at the time than it is now -- and there's no reason to believe scrutiny of Trump would undermine the recovery, either.

For that matter, it was unclear why the president and his speechwriters thought it'd be wise to tie "war and investigation" together.

But at its core, Trump's threat hasn't changed since the day after his party's defeats in the midterm elections: he will not work with a Congress that scrutinizes his many scandals. The president could cooperate with congressional oversight of the executive branch, but as of last night, he instead preferred to deliver a very high-profile ultimatum to lawmakers: drop the investigations or else.

In 1974, just months before he was forced to resign in disgrace, Richard Nixon delivered his final State of the Union address and told the nation, "I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough."

Nearly a half-century later, another scandal-plagued Republican president, who's also confronted with a criminal investigation, stood at the same spot and was even less subtle.

Trump ultimately seems to have some kind of corrupt bargain in mind: desperate for some kind of leverage, the president wants Democrats to believe he's prepared to govern, but only if they look the other way on his many areas of alleged wrongdoing.

If he seriously expects the House Democratic majority to accept these conditions, he's going to be disappointed. Indeed, Trump's pitch has arguably backfired: the question overshadowing all others this morning is, why is the president so afraid of scrutiny?