Part 43 of a series on game theory and politics, this on the fallout from the Trump Ukraine scandal.
First published in September 2019.
This week I was in DC and saw people just trying to get through this thing called life. On Monday morning, when a Secret Service agent was asked why they cleared Lafayette Park for no apparent reason, he shrugged and told my companion, “Hey man, it’s the White House. You never know what goes on in there.” At lunchtime, a Trump International Hotel gift shop employee said, “I love my job, because nobody ever buys anything.” On Monday afternoon, a cop at the Capitol pointed toward a shady area and told me, “Over there’s a good place to hide from people.” Almost three years in, the beleaguered residents of our nation’s capital were waiting for all this madness to end.
And on Tuesday, I saw them breathe in and realize it might just.
Sure, they all know Democrats eat their own, and the House Democrats looked like they would live up to expectations. Last week the Judiciary Committee brought in former Trump campaign manager and Senate hopeful Corey Lewandowski, who grandstanded and chest-puffed his way through the hearing. Chaos erupted.
The reply from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to kneecap her own people. “I would have held him in contempt right then and there,” she said, hovering over Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, who fumed at Lewandowski but let him snake out without charges. For months, Pelosi had clashed with Nadler and progressives over their obsession with impeaching Trump, which she did not want to do. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and other progressive legislators stated that the biggest crime they saw in DC was the Democrats’ failure to act on Trump’s smorgasbord of offenses. But Pelosi said she did not have the votes – about 160 of the needed 218 Democrats favored opening an impeachment inquiry – and the public wasn’t there anyway. According to Politico’s sources, Pelosi had a different goal:
“I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison.”
This made some sense. Pelosi’s job is not to put a Democratic president in the White House. It’s to remain speaker. She only gets to keep that job if the Democrats keep the House. If she believed impeachment would lose the House, she would not do anything to endanger her position as speaker.
But this week, a whistleblower complaint broke the floodgates open. If the memorandum of a call between Trump and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky are to be believed – and trusting anything in this circus is risky – this happened: The day after Robert Mueller testified to Congress, Trump offered to release hundreds of millions in withheld foreign aid and sell Ukraine Javelin missiles. And then he said, in the tenor of a mob boss,
“I would like you to do us a favor, though.”
Zelensky would get his missiles to fight off encroaching Russians if and only if Ukraine helped to find the servers that presumably contains the hacked DNC emails. Worse, Trump asked Zelensky to work with Attorney General Bill Barr and attorney Rudy Giuliani to concoct an investigation of Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who joined the board of the gas company Burisma Holdings after it got investigated in 2013. Zelensky and his people were then visited by administration officials and Giuliani to discuss how to “navigate the president’s demands.” After the story broke, Ukraine says it believed the aid was tied directly to them playing ball with Trump. Giuliani copped to all of this on TV in a whirlwind tour of self-immolation.
That Trump’s request was entirely without merit is almost beside the point. This was a massive abuse of power, manipulating foreign aid to falsify a hit job on an opponent – the one polls say is most likely to defeat Trump if nominated.
This is something Trump crowed that he would do if given the opportunity. He had already asked Russia for help against Hillary Clinton in his 2016 campaign, saying “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” After the Mueller Report came out, George Stephanopoulos asked Trump if he’d accept a foreign country’s help to undermine his opponent. Trump said “I think I’d take it.” If these reports are true, he did so less than a month later.
With all of this evidence, Nancy Pelosi cast aside her public lack of desire to impeach Trump. “This is a violation of law,” she said, and then made it clear that she would make sure that “no one is above the law.” She used the word “Betrayal” even more than I do. Listen to this:
In a mere 24 hours, the House went from 160 votes for an impeachment inquiry to an astonishing 219 – a majority of the House. All because a speaker who opposed impeachment became one who supported it.
Then again, maybe she never opposed impeachment at all.
I know that’s hard for progressives to believe, but Nancy Pelosi has been in Congress a very long time. She’s a master of the long game. She’s worked the room. When she makes a move, she knows how people will perceive it. She knows that sometimes, you just need a good rope-a-dope.
The rope-a-dope! If you’re a boxing fan, you know that from Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle strategy against heavyweight champ George Foreman, 45 years ago today in Zaire. Here’s Ali explaining it:
The 24-year-old Foreman was a big dude who could punch anyone into the mat. 32-year-old Ali had superior quickness, but knew he couldn’t win on finesse. Instead, he and trainer Angelo Dundee hatched a dangerous strategy: Starting in round 2, Ali would rest against the ropes and let Foreman pummel him on the arms and midsection. Ali would deflect some blows, dodge others, and accept the beating from the rest. In return, Ali would punch Foreman right in the face when he could. And he’d taunt Foreman. A lot. “You can’t hurt me!” he shouted. “You punch like a sissy!”
After a half dozen rounds of beatdown in the 90-degree heat, Ali had taken blow after blow. Rounds 3 through 5 favored Foreman. But around the end of round 5, Foreman visibly tired. His swings became wilder and slower. Then in round 7, Ali came back swinging. He thrashed Foreman’s right eye shut, let him whiff on a punch that made Foreman nearly fall out of the ring, then knocked Foreman to the mat in round 8. Exhausted, Foreman struggled to stand. That was that. The refs stopped the fight, and Muhammad Ali was back on his way to being the greatest of all time.
The rope-a-dope Ali performed had two main features. The first is the rope. In a rope-a-dope, the rope absorbs much of the beating taken by the fighter against it. Plastic deformation occurs when a struck object doesn’t give way. A fighter in the middle of the ring has to use their leg strength to stay upright, so the beating they take is entirely absorbed by the body. But a fighter on the fringes lets the ropes carry them backwards, leading to more elastic deformation. They can quite literally bounce back.
But the tactic only works if the opponent lets it. An unwilling opponent will move back into the ring, risking extending the fight but not tiring themselves with longer swings. Only if the opponent foolishly moves toward the ropes with the fighter employing the rope-a-dope will they fall into its trap. As Cosell noted, to do a rope-a-dope, you need a dope.
The dope du jour is Donald Trump. Here’s how Pelosi got him. Her first step as newly elected speaker was to caution against impeachment until the Mueller Report dropped. Then, when it did not directly conclude that Trump colluded with the Russians, she resisted calls for impeachment on the grounds that Trump tried to obstruct the process. The public needed to see both action (collusion before his election) and reaction (obstruction after his election) from Trump to back his impeachment, she concluded. So she let herself be hit, over and over and over, by both Republicans and progressives for not rising to impeach on somewhat shaky grounds.
But Pelosi had a lot of rope behind her – decades of building power and relationships. The House Intelligence chair, Adam Schiff, supported her stance on impeachment. So did Oversight chair Elijah Cummings. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the committees were not engaged in impeachment inquiries. These were resolute people, and they could handle whatever the impeach-the-motherfucker progressives could dish out, at least between primary seasons. They stood together and did not budge from the rope until something better came along.
As is obvious now, they knew it would. Believing he had been exonerated by Mueller, Trump was emboldened to try the foreign-influence tactic again. Pelosi and pals were confident he couldn’t resist screwing things up. When he did, it would be an action as president, not as a candidate. Simple, clear, and dumb as a concrete block. They trusted Trump to be Trump, to self-impeach. Boy, did that dangerous strategy pay off. Here’s what the House looks like on impeachment now.
By resisting the impatient wailing of people like me – and I was whining at her as late as last Tuesday – Pelosi came roaring out like a champion. She played Trump and her Democratic detractors, ending up entirely in command of all wings of her party. Of course, the fight is not yet over. It’s round 7 of the Rumble in the Jungle – the “Thunder in the Rotunda,” let’s call it – with Trump loyalists tiring but still expecting to win. In a press conference, Trump went full dictator mode: “Nancy Pelosi, as far as I’m concerned, is no longer the Speaker of the House.” Not a good look.
Round 8 is still to come, and we don’t know what will happen. The House Democrats could still bollix this up, Rudy Giuliani-style. Of course, even if they do impeach Trump, two-thirds of the Senate has to vote to convict before he can be removed. Highly unlikely in these hyperpartisan times.
Then there’s what this means for the Democratic candidates. Biden, already losing ground in the polls, could suffer further damage from baseless Republican attacks on his efforts to get the Ukrainian prosecutor removed years later and his son’s proximity to the situation.
Or he could get sympathy for being the Nancy Kerrigan to Trump’s Tonya Harding, and rise in the polls. Depending on who you want to be president, you could see this story as helping or hurting your candidate – that is, interfering in the election.
But let’s focus on the good thing: The House Democrats are swinging hard against an opponent that took the bait and overthrew his punches. Somebody’s gonna get knocked out. For the first time, I think Pelosi is going to be the one with the gloves in the air when the final bell sounds.🔷
This is the 43rd installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, and Trump’s lies. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.
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