Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

A Close Textual Reading of Trump’s Letter to Nancy Pelosi

by Jim Swift
December 18, 2019
A Close Textual Reading of Trump’s Letter to Nancy Pelosi

Say what you want about Donald Trump as a president: He does not have a deep understanding of the legislative process. He spends more time on Twitter than most healthy, well-adjusted men of his age. He golfs a lot. He may have committed some . . . light treason.

But by God, when the chips are down and it’s time to craft the kind of important letter that will one day be featured in his presidential library—that’s a thing that’s going to happen, by the way—he writes the things himself.

Do you know who else wrote his own material? Lincoln.

Boom. Roasted.

You can tell that Trump wrote his letter to Nancy Pelosi four sentences in. That’s when he drops the first exclamation point.

A lot of people will tell you that exclamation points shouldn’t be used in formal correspondence. And maybe that’s true of the old rules. I bet that hypocrite Jeb Bush doesn’t use exclamation points in formal letters. But he put one in his campaign logo and now he’s sucking wind while Donald Trump is Leader of the Free World and so shredded he looks like Rocky. (Probably.)

So let’s just stipulate that it’s okay to use an exclamation point when you’re talking to Congress about the solemn constitutional process of impeachment. Sometimes you have to make a point. Go big or go home.

Trump used seven of them in his letter. That’s what happens when you let the POTUS hold the sharpie all by himself.

You can see Trump’s fingerprints all over the letter, though, not just in the punctuation.

One of the keys to understanding Trump is that his entire life is a case of projection. If he’s accusing somebody of something, it’s because he’s guilty-as-sin of doing it himself.

So what does Trump do in his letter?

He accuses House members of violating their oaths of office regarding impeachment. This isn’t true—Lordy, it’s not remotely true. About the House, that is. It’s absolutely true about Trump, who swore to defend the Constitution from enemies both foreign and domestic and wound up recruiting foreign enemies to attack his domestic rivals for him.

And it’s also true about Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, who have literally said that they’re going to disregard the oath they’ll have to take at the start of an impeachment trial.

Then there’s the part where Trump talks about “open war” on democracy. This is stuff he picked up from his Red Pill buddies on Twitter, who need civil war slash-fic to help them with their performance issues.

There’s a weird moment in the letter where Trump invokes the Founding Fathers, something he rarely does. But it’s just in service of throwing a shout-out to the Fall-Kirkers so they know he hasn’t forgotten them:

Even worse than offending the Founding Fathers, you are offending Americans of faith by continually saying “I pray for the President,” when you know this statement is not true, unless it is meant in a negative sense. It is a terrible thing you are doing, but you will have to live with it, not I!

Trump then spends the next paragraph on his “perfect” call with the president of Ukraine. Here’s the kicker: “I said do us a favor, not me, and our country, not a campaign. I then mentioned the Attorney General of the United States. Every time I talk with a foreign leader, I put America’s interests first, just as I did with President Zelensky.”

You see, when you underline things it makes them true. People might lie when they’re typing in normal text, but if you underline it, or ALL CAP it, or UNDERLINE ALL CAP with an exclamation point, it pretty much has to be true. Watch:



Things start to get a little meta when Trump accuses Pelosi of being the one doing the projection. “Now you are trying to impeach me by falsely accusing me of doing what Joe Biden has admitted he actually did,” Trump writes. That’s false. Actually, the very opposite is true. But at least the president didn’t play dirty pool by underlining it in order to trick us.

The most important part about the letter, from a legal standpoint, is where President Trump denies that he obstructed Congress—which he absolutely did and continues to do. I guess you could say that this is his formal plea of “not guilty.” And maybe he even believes it. After all, do you think Trump has a firm grasp on the Constitutional relationships between the executive and legislative branches? I kind of don’t.

It seems much more likely that Trump thought that being elected president was like being turned into a king. There’s a way in which you can read his entire presidency as a series of revelations in which Trump is told You can’t do that. And he keeps getting more and more frustrated until he tells Rudy to just go to Kyiv and take care of things already.

The close of Trump’s letter includes all his greatest hits: Impeachment Hoax, Russian Witch Hunt, and allegations that the Democrats are the ones who fabricated these stories.

Trump continues:

If you truly cared about freedom and liberty for our Nation, then you would be devoting your vast investigative resources to exposing the full truth concerning the FBI’s horrifying abuses of power before, during, and after the 2016 election.

You don’t often hear Trump say the word “liberty” unless it’s followed by “university,” but it’s kind of amazing that he invokes “liberty” here as part of his years-long attack on the FBI, which is absolutely not something a Russian asset would do. No,сэр.

In the end, Trump whines about due process and impeachment, without seeming to understand what either is. Impeachment is a political, not a legal, maneuver and is hard coded into the Constitution. And as for Trump’s new-found passion for due process, perhaps the Central Park Five will be gratified to hear of it. Although, to be honest, it does seem possible that they might take him neither literally, nor seriously, on the subject.

There’s one paragraph, though, that really stuck out at me:

You are turning a policy disagreement between two branches of government into an impeachable offense—it is no more legitimate than the Executive Branch charging members of Congress with crimes for the lawful exercise of legislative power.

Almost alone in the body of the letter, this reads like some other writer inserting themselves in an attempt to make a real argument. The first tip off, of course, is that there’s no exclamation point, or underlining, or ALL CAPS. The second is that it includes the legal-sounding phrase “lawful exercise of power,” which is above grade-level for our president.

The fact that Trump would allow someone else to lean over his shoulder and dictate a paragraph to him, at a moment when he was clearly inspired by the muse, suggests that, for all the bravado, it’s possible—just possible—that Donald Trump is scared.

I wonder why.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.