Washington • It’s often said that when our founders wrote the Constitution, they had a leader like Donald Trump in mind when they included various safeguards for our liberties and against abuses of presidential power.
I think that gets it wrong. The founders could not have imagined a president like Trump.
They certainly never expected that a president would go on strike.
But that is what Trump did on Wednesday, throwing a tantrum at what was supposed to be a serious meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer about a big infrastructure plan. Trump then barged out and told waiting reporters that unless the House stopped investigating him — i.e., gave up on its responsibilities to hold him accountable — Americans would just have to keep driving on crumbling roads, crossing shaky bridges and riding on inadequate public transit systems.
He took umbrage at Pelosi accusing him of a "cover-up" after a morning meeting with her Democratic caucus — even though the speaker's comment was a logical response to Trump's sweeping efforts to block the House from hearing witnesses and receiving documents that it has a right to request. That Pelosi is encouraging her caucus to hold back on impeachment inquiries was apparently lost on him.
Trump's theatrics only hardened Pelosi's view. After Trump's stagey sulk, she told a gathering organized by the Center for American Progress: "The fact is, in plain sight in the public domain, this president is obstructing justice and he's engaged in a cover-up — and that could be an impeachable offense." She also told the group that she was praying for him and for our country.
She might usefully add our constitutional system to her prayerful petitioning, because there is one other thing our founders certainly didn't have in mind: that extreme partisanship would so obliterate institutional patriotism that congressional Republicans would put the interests of a power-abusing president over the legitimate rights and prerogatives of the legislative branch of government. Democrats should not have to be fighting Trump's imperiousness on their own.
But that is how it is, which means that a growing number of angry and frustrated House members are arguing that their colleagues should move quickly to impeachment hearings because doing so might strengthen their legal hand in prying out information to which they are entitled.
Again, I doubt that when the founders wrote the impeachment power into the Constitution, they expected it might be the only recourse left against a chief executive who is guided solely by an obsession with self-protection.
For all the talk of Democrats being divided on impeachment, my reporting suggests something different and more complicated. Virtually all members of their caucus are infuriated with Trump's stonewalling and in search of stronger ways to push back against it. Large numbers see many of his actions — and not just those described in the Mueller report — as potentially impeachable, but they worry about what signal would be sent if the House impeached and the Senate acquitted.
At the same time, a very sizable group, particularly members from swing districts, wants everyone to know that if impeachment comes, it will be undertaken deliberately and not in haste.
"My responsibility is to deliver the evidence," Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., who won a Republican-held seat in 2018, said in an interview. "I really want to make sure this is done correctly."
Rep. David Price, D-N.C, who has spent three decades in the House, put the ambivalence many of his colleagues plainly. "Most of us think these are impeachable offenses," he told me. "But it will be a failed impeachment in the Senate unless something changes on the Republican side. How much better is a failed impeachment than a relentless, serious set of investigations?" Which, of course, is why Trump is doing all he can to make such inquiries impossible.
For now, a majority of House Democrats seem inclined to support court efforts to uphold the various subpoenas and document requests before moving to impeachment. Giving Trump more time for Rose Garden and Twitter antics could also allow him to make the case for impeachment far better than Democrats ever could on their own.
And in blowing up the talks on infrastructure, Trump has already assuaged one of the worries swing-district Democrats — that they'd be blamed if Washington doesn't act on big issues. Now, everyone will know that it's Trump who has little interest in governing or compromising. He's the one with the picket sign, grinding government to a halt to keep his secrets.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.