Even the most seasoned politicians struggle with how to respond to President Donald Trump’s offensive whims.
Republicans are trying to dodge Trump’s verbal bullets, preferring to explain away his public statements as either irrelevant or simply a trap for reporters. Sen. Marco Rubio, who was taunted by Trump in the 2016 election as “Little Marco,” has even suggested Trump’s comments about asking China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter are not serious. “I don’t know if that’s a real request, or him just needling the press, knowing that we are going to get outraged by it,” Rubio said. “He’s gotten pretty good at getting everyone fired up … He’s been doing it for a while and the media responded on task.”
Another strategy is agree to disagree. Conservative talk show hosts like Tucker Carlson of Fox News are just now calling Trump out, saying there is no way to spin his inappropriate call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — hoping that might tame the beast, or just get people to change the subject.
The latest strategy is by the White House: to bully Congress by threatening not to cooperate with an impeachment inquiry, saying it violates Trump’s due process and undermines his ability to govern because it calls into question the legitimacy of his election.
Responding to a bully is hard. Multiple experts have theories ranging from confrontation to conflict avoidance to acceptance. In the end, nothing seems to work.
Which brings us back to the impeachment inquiry. The person who seems to easily challenge Trump is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose reluctant support for such an inquiry was critical to it moving ahead.
Pelosi is like a stern schoolteacher with Trump. Take a look at her performance in the Oval Office in December, when she scolded him for misstating the facts on immigration and his Southern border wall. She never loses control — in contrast to an erratic commander in chief who changed years-long U.S.-Kurd policy on Monday after a phone call with his Turkish counterpart.
Anger is easy. The harder, but more effective approach, is the steady, calm, deliberate fact-based rebuff. Watch Pelosi as she practices it during the impeachment probe.
Tara D. Sonenshine, a former U.S. undersecretary of state, advises students at The George Washington University.