Though many Republicans said that the president might now behave more cautiously, the reality is that he just feels empowered to abuse his office again.
It didn’t take long to find out what an unleashed Donald Trump looks like — and I’m not referring to his petulant, un-Christian comments at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning or even his toxic, stream-of-subconsciousness victory lap in the East Room of the White House early that afternoon, during which the leader of the free world introduced “top scum” and “bullshit” to the public presidential lexicon.
Sure, both performances offered disturbing glimpses into Trump’s very scary emotional state, as if his Twitter feed weren’t enough. But even as he debuted the latest iteration of his angry-victim performance art, he and his allies also started settling scores in a startlingly open way.
In a certain sense, the rhetoric was no surprise: Trump has always described himself as a counterpuncher, unwilling to let any perceived slight pass. But now, free from impeachment’s shadow and safe in the knowledge that congressional Republicans will forgive literally any trespass, he’s counterpunching with reckless abandon, going beyond even what his detractors had imagined.
We knew that he was compiling an impeachment “enemy’s list" and now, the official White House statement on his acquittal asked of one of his prosecutors: “Will there be no retribution?” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham appeared on Fox News on Thursday morning to drive home that message, promising that Trump would be talking about how victimized he feels and that, “maybe people should pay for that.”
Pay indeed. Trump Friday fired Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman and had him escorted from the White House complex. Vindman was the National Security Council staffer who raised questions about Trump’s infamous Ukraine phone call and then testified in the House impeachment inquiry under subpoena. And Trump purged Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, as well, in a triumph of petty vindictiveness. (He was, of all things, an ethics lawyer, which makes it amazing this White House employed him in the first place.)
On Friday night, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who had allegedly spearheaded Trump's effort to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens and then testified in the impeachment hearings, was also sacked in apparent retaliation for his impeachment testimony, which was also given under subpoena.
Trump aides reportedly spent Thursday circulating talking points savaging Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who chose fidelity to conscience and Constitution over loyalty to dear leader and party. We’re still waiting for Romney’s Republican colleagues to voice the same outrage they contrived when Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., had the temerity to suggest during the impeachment trial that the White House might engage in reprisals against Republicans who didn’t vote to acquit him.
Trump’s Hill henchmen are getting in the act as well, promising to deliver what he couldn’t get from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy: A Biden investigation Trump can tout if the former vice president survives the primaries. On the same day the Senate trial ended, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., who chair the Senate Finance and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees, respectively, sent a letter to the Secret Service requesting information about times the younger Biden traveled abroad with government protection because they are “reviewing potential conflicts of interest posed by the business activities of Hunter Biden.”
And while the administration has stonewalled Congressional Democrats seeking records of any kind, it is being more cooperative when it comes to punishing his enemies. The Treasury Department has reportedly already sent sensitive financial records pertaining to the younger Biden to Grassley and Johnson. This is the same agency which has for years — and recently in violation of federal law — refused to divulge Trump’s tax returns and participated in Trump’s evidentiary obstruction and coverup during the impeachment proceedings.
“Senators like Grassley and Johnson are supposed to be holding the president accountable,” Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, tweeted Thursday night. “Instead, they are corruptly weaponizing the criminal investigative apparatus against citizens to interfere in an election."
The president’s attempts to trump up an investigation of the Bidens — and use U.S. military aid to Ukraine as leverage — spurred impeachment in the first place. But with the trial out of the way, Trump’s attack-lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is “ramping up,” his investigations of the Bidens. “It’s a matter of the fair administration of justice for real,” Giuliani told The Daily Beast, in an O.J.-like pledge to hunt down the real criminals.
So maybe it’s another coincidence that the day after Trump’s acquittal, word emerged from the embattled eastern European nation that the administration is holding up $30 millions of arms sales to the country. Or maybe it’s a reminder that Trump’s wrath extends beyond his proximate political adversaries. Recall that he believes the Russian propaganda that the real 2016 election interference was driven by Kyiv and aimed at him, rather than from Moscow and in his favor.
Also within hours of the Senate trial ending, the administration announced a punitive new measure aimed at the very-blue New York state (whose senator, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, led the Democrats in voting to impeach him): Empire State residents are being cut out of “trusted traveler” programs like Global Entry. The administration was ostensibly reacting to a new law there permitting immigrants to get driver’s licenses while forbidding the Department of Motor Vehicles from sharing any data with immigration enforcement officials without a court order, despite the fact that, for example, licenses are not required for Global Entry.
And Friday morning, the famously thin-skinned commander-in-chief opined that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “broke the law” when she tore up her copy of his State of the Union speech. This particular bit of grandiose nonsense is incorrect: Tearing up a copy of a speech is not the same thing as destroying an official document. (Trump, by the way, makes a habit of ripping up actual official documents.) At minimum, Pelosi will become the new target of Trump rally “lock her up” chants — but would it surprise anyone if the newly-emboldened president pressed Attorney General William Barr to open an investigation as well?
And these are just the examples which have come to light in the days since Trump emerged from impeachment, angrier and less repentant than ever (despite the openly stated hopes of moderate Republicans, like Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said Tuesday that she thought “he will be much more cautious in the future”). Who knows what else he’s quietly up to or what is yet to come? Remember that he only stepped up his pressure on Ukraine after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress.
When President Bill Clinton was acquitted, the joke was that he felt free to start dating again; with Trump the reality is that he feels empowered to abuse his office again.
And it may be a long while before we know the true depths of his political depravities because on the same day that Trump was acquitted, Attorney General Barr issued new guidance that he must personally approve any politically-sensitive investigations. Barr, who has dispensed with his office’s traditional independence from the president, has been a vocal critic of Mueller’s investigation, even though it produced dozens of indictments, seven guilty pleas (many from top Trump aides) and five prison sentences. And now he has insulated Trump from any fears of being held accountable in the run-up to the November elections.
Though a number of Senate Republicans have suggested that Trump had learned a lesson from his impeachment, early indications are that he intends to teach a number of people some very hard lessons — including about believing people when they show you who they are — instead.
- Robert Schlesinger is a veteran Washington journalist and commentator and cohost of the Bipodisan podcast. He is the author of “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters.”
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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