This is not the work of an orderly mind.
President Trump stormed into the Cabinet Room 15 minutes late Wednesday morning and immediately proceeded to blow up a long-planned meeting with Democratic leaders about an infrastructure bill. He raged against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, for the terrible, horrible things she has said about him, and he vowed not to work on any legislation until Democrats stop investigating his administration. He stomped out of the room before Democrats had a chance to reply, then marched into the Rose Garden for an unscheduled news conference; or, more accurately, a 12-minute parade of paranoia.
Positively everybody was out to get him. They were out to get him in the third person: “They hated President Trump. They hated him with a passion,” he said. They were out to get him in the first-person plural: “These people were out to get us, the Republican Party and President Trump. They were out to get us.” What’s more, they have been after him “pretty much from the time we came down the escalator in Trump Tower.” And now they probably will impeach him because they “do whatever they have to do.”
He raged on. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, has “been an enemy of mine for many years.” The “whole thing was a takedown attempt.” The assembled press “ought to be ashamed of yourselves for the way you report it so dishonestly.” And, even though he was the one who blew up the infrastructure meeting, he just knew that Democrats were “not really thinking they wanted to do infrastructure or anything else other than investigate.”
He ricocheted randomly among inchoate thought fragments: Infrastructure. WITCH HUNT! Unemployment. NO COLLUSION! Drug prices. HOAX! A special election in Pennsylvania. ONE-SIDED HORRIBLE THING! Tax cuts. DON JR. HAS GONE THROUGH HELL! I love the American people. IMPEACHMENT! Regulations. A DISGRACE! ABUSE!
Nobody seemed to know what to make of the explosion. White House officials reportedly said they tried to stop Trump from making the Rose Garden appearance. And for good reason: With Wednesday’s public announcement that he won’t negotiate with Democrats, the president has taken ownership of the lack of progress on infrastructure and other legislation; much the way he took ownership of the government shutdown.
And for what? The remark Pelosi made that apparently set Trump off — “we believe that the president of the United States is engaged in a coverup” — is something Democratic leaders have said before (Pelosi’s deputy, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, accused Trump two weeks earlier of “the greatest coverup of any president in American history”) and something well supported both by the Mueller report and by Trump’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with congressional inquiries. Besides, if Trump doesn’t want to legislate while Democrats investigate, why did he launch infrastructure talks with them in the first place?
“Hello?” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, said after Trump’s tirade, “There were investigations going on three weeks ago when we met, and he still met with us.”
What changed, apparently, is the president’s state of mind. People often describe him as “unraveling,” but that implies he was once fully knitted. Whatever his mental starting point, those seeking the method in Trump’s madness lately have encountered less of the former and more of the latter.
The rage, the Nixonian paranoia and the scattered thinking suggest he feels the walls closing in on him. But his own actions are causing the walls to close. Democratic leaders don’t want to impeach him; Pelosi’s “coverup” remark was in the context of her fighting off members of her caucus who wish to proceed immediately with impeachment. And Trump, even if he thinks impeachment will help him politically, surely doesn’t desire to become only the third president so stained. Yet, each day, his belligerence and refusal to cooperate leave Democrats with less of a choice. He’s stumbling toward impeachment.
On Wednesday, he started tweeting before 6 a.m. about “NO COLLUSION” and impeachment and “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” From that fragile mental state, all it took was one line from Pelosi to propel Trump to the Rose Garden with a poster taped to the presidential lectern announcing such things as “NO Collusion” and “18 Angry Democrats.”
“I don’t do coverups,” announced the man who paid hush money to an adult-film star and who is now fighting legal battles to conceal his tax returns and business records. “I’m the most transparent president, probably, in the history of this country,” he also said.
In one sense, that’s true: Trump’s state of mind is utterly transparent, revealed in real time. At the moment, he seems to be transparently mad.
Back at the Capitol, Pelosi reacted with concern more than anger. “I pray for the president of the United States,” she said. “And I pray for the United States of America.”
So should we all.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.