One doubts that President Donald Trump has been reading Livy on the Punic Wars between Twitter storms. So any resemblance between his post-Mueller report reelection strategy and Hannibal’s victory at Lake Trasimene in 217 B.C. is probably coincidental.
(Speaking of Twitter storms, did you happen to see the president’s reaction to the recent New York Times story detailing the $1 billion of losses he claimed on his tax returns in the 1980s and ’90s? Flip-flopping like a beached trout, Trump first dismissed the story as something everyone has known for ages - “very old information” - then boasted that all great real estate developers dodged taxes in those days - “it was sport” - before dismissing the whole thing as a “Fake News hit job!” He confirmed it, explained it, bragged about it and denied it in the space of a couple of tweets. He truly is a remarkable specimen.)
Hannibal Barca was commander in chief of the army of Carthage, a North African empire just across the Mediterranean from its rival, Rome. After the Romans got the better of Carthage in the first Punic War, Hannibal launched the sequel by invading what is now Spain and crossing into the Italian boot with the help of mountain-climbing elephants. And some people say history is boring.
Alarmed, the Romans sent an army under Gaius Flaminius northward to reinforce their defenses. Hannibal taunted the Roman general by staging politically embarrassing raids across the countryside until Flaminius could stand no more. The Carthaginian genius then coaxed his angry foe into a fearsome ambush. Having hidden some 50,000 men on a forested hillside overlooking a narrow road beside the lake, Hannibal sprang a surprise attack. Trapped on the road, the Romans lost thousands of men, hacked to death or driven into the lake to drown.
In our closely divided nation, it would be rash to predict such a one-sided result next year. But the non-testimony of Attorney General William Barr, plus Trump’s defiance of congressional subpoenas, are designed to provoke the Democrats into a battle of the president’s choosing. And by declaring “a constitutional crisis,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is following in the footsteps of Flaminius.
Democrats have trouble remembering the two rules of Trump. First, he thrives on conflict. He reportedly told senior aides from the start that every day of his presidency should be a TV show in which he battles rivals and wins. Second, he believes that elections are won by dominating the spotlight. “It’s not the polls. It’s the ratings,” he explained to me in 2016.
Why then, suddenly, is the administration so defiant of Congress? Conflict and ratings, conflict and ratings. Trump seeks to frame the 2020 election. He doesn’t want it to be about his character, vision or stewardship of the presidency. He wants Americans next year to be wondering why their government is still in “crisis” so long after the Mueller report. He’ll blame his failures on an unreasonable opposition.
A more cautious army than the Democrats would have suspected a trap the moment Barr spurned the House Judiciary Committee. This veteran of Washington warfare easily shrugged off hours of questions from a Senate panel concerning special counsel Robert Mueller and his lightly redacted report. Barr could have sparred for another day in the House just as comfortably and pugnaciously. Barr’s decision to boycott can only be understood as a deliberate provocation.
Instead of finding a way to avoid an ambush, Democrats have plunged ahead. The judiciary panel voted along partisan lines to hold Barr in contempt of Congress. Another fight is joined over access to Mueller’s trove of evidence. And the most determinedly self-destructive Democrats continue to push for impeachment.
This battle royal between the legislative and executive branches will grind its way through the courts - all the while allowing Trump to continue hogging the media’s attention. Meanwhile, some two dozen would-be Democratic nominees are starving for airtime. House Democrats could be passing popular legislation and forcing Team Trump to block it, thus laying the groundwork for the coming campaign. They appear trapped in their Trump obsession.
Like the Romans marching to Trasimene, the Democrats are overconfident.
They say they can “walk and chew gum at the same time” - that is, hound the president while pushing a positive platform. They’re wrong; they can’t. If there is hounding to be done, let New York’s attorney general do it. Team Pelosi should hit Trump where it hurts: Ignore him for a while.
Ancient history is not the only place to learn this lesson. It is as fresh as the last election. Hillary Clinton took Trump’s bait and made her entire closing argument about him: his genital-grabbing, his bankruptcies, his bromance with Vladimir Putin. By Election Day, Democrats basked in polls that indicated a majority of Americans thought Trump was unfit for office.
And look what happened. Trump’s opponents are deluded if they think it can’t happen again.
David Von Drehle is a columnist with The Washington Post.