Democrats have spent the last three months trying to rein in what they see as President Donald Trump’s flagrant and latest abuse of power.
But they concede it’s not likely to work. The president, they say, is not going to change. Not because of a legacy-tarring rebuke. Not because of an expected impeachment acquittal. And, in their eyes, he may even get worse. Democrats are expecting a post-impeachment Trump who is unburdened, feeling immune from penalty — exactly how they feel he’s always behaved.
“I think his behavior will get more extreme going into the election,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016. “He will commit things that many Americans, including undecided independents, will find offensive. Whether they’re impeachable offenses, I don’t know. But I think in trying to jazz up his own base he’s going to do some things that swing voters find offensive.”
Yet what Democrats see as noxious, base-pleasing agitation, Republicans see as a president fighting for his priorities, refusing to let a Washington rattled by his unconventional behavior stop him.
“A virtue of this president is he has been the same person yesterday, today and tomorrow, and I expect that will continue,” said Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, a former Trump 2016 rival and now one of the president’s most ardent Capitol Hill supporters. “That includes saying and doing some things that perhaps he shouldn’t say and do. But it also includes demonstrating a real backbone.”
Impeachment, of course, is a rarity in American politics. And it’s even more so the case on the presidential campaign front.
The only modern-day impeachment example seen through to its end involves President Bill Clinton. But Clinton was a second-term lame duck when he escaped conviction in the Senate after facing a largely-party line House impeachment vote. While the Democratic president actually enjoyed a boost in his own popularity, Vice President Al Gore nonetheless kept him arm’s length during his unsuccessful bid to replace Clinton in 2000.
In 2020, Trump’s survival hinges on a base-focused re-election campaign heavy on partisan policy plays, nasty rhetorical outbursts and other forms of envelope pushing.
That means any post-impeachment Trump response will be the diametric opposite of what Clinton did — apologize. After his Senate acquittal in February 1999, Clinton went alone into the White House’s Rose Garden to deliver a statement to the nation expressing regret for the conduct that led to his impeachment.
“Oh, no! C’mon. Now you’re going too far,” said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and longtime Trump associate, when asked if he anticipated the president apologizing to the nation should he secure Senate acquittal. “He doesn’t have to do that, only because he’s considered to be such a fighter anyway.”
That’s a view shared by many of King’s GOP colleagues
“Whether it’s the day before this impeachment inquiry started, it’s the night of this House voting or it’s after the Senate finishes it’s process on this, he’s gonna still be unleashed,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican who emerged during the House impeachment proceedings as another of the president’s most fervent defenders.
The never-back-down attitude came through last Wednesday night when Trump took the stage at a raucous rally in Michigan as the House was voting to impeach him.
In addition to the expected lashing of his current Democratic opponents, Trump went after a Michigan legend — the late Democratic Rep. John Dingell. In remarks that rattled even some Republicans, Trump joked that the deceased House veteran was in hell. The president also drew condemnation when he urged security officials to not worry about being “politically correct” as they escorted out a protester.
“You gotta get a little bit stronger than that folks,” the president said, reprising a line from his 2016 campaign that led to litigation that was later dismissed in federal court.
Working so close to the edge of what’s both acceptable and legal could give House Democrats additional fodder as they continue investigating the president.
“The House has an oversight role and it’s going to continue to play. We take it seriously,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
And with the November general election looming, Trump’s political rivals say that a president who thinks he’s inoculated from any consequences could do and say things that turn off enough voters to cost him the White House.
“Once this impeachment is past, his actions may well end up reminding the majority of Americans why they voted for a Democratic House and how much more can be accomplished if you actually have a Democratic Senate to go along with it,” Deutch said. “And so that’s something the president ought to be thinking about. My guess is he won’t.”
Democrats said they have their own ideas of where Trump will take the country beyond impeachment — but they also aren’t quite sure how to articulate it.
“If, in fact, President Trump can get away with what he did again our imagination is the only limit to what President Trump may do next or what a future president may do next to try to abuse his or her power to serve his own personal interest over the nation’s interest,” said Barry Berke, a lead House Judiciary Committee staffer working on impeachment, during a recent hearing.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a frequent Trump critic, also said he had a difficult time putting into words what the president’s reaction would be should the Senate vote to acquit.
“What new level would you contemplate?” he asked. “I think sadly we’re likely to see more of the same. Maybe there’s another level that’s lower than this one, but I certainly hope not. I think the danger to the country is already substantial.”
Post-impeachment Trump does make some Republicans who have supported the president uneasy.
“I worry the president will think he’s got a lot more room to roam because he beat impeachment once, he can beat it anytime,” said Ari Fleischer, the former George W. Bush White House press secretary. “It’d be so much wiser for the republic if they saved impeachment for if and when it matters.”
Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, was one of four Republicans to vote in July for a resolution condemning the president’s “racist comments” about four House Democratic women. But he struggled in a recent interview to say whether he thought the president on the other end of a Senate trial would feel emboldened to do things he hasn’t done before. His answer took about a minute to come out.
“He’s a different kind of character, right? Let’s face it. And I don’t know,” said Upton, seeking to find the right phrasing. “But I think, I, I think that he’s, you know, I’ve said you know, folks like his economic policies. Let me just make sure.”
Upton abruptly ended the conversation to scamper onto the House floor to make sure he had voted. Then he came back, finally having settled on what he wanted to say.
“I wish,” Upton quickly said, “that he would drop his phone in a bucket of water.”
A few days later, Upton sided with the entire House GOP conference in voting against both of the articles of impeachment against Trump. But only hours after voting, Upton was dealing with a post-impeachment Trump, who had just gone after Dingell, Upton’s longtime colleague and congressional neighbor.
“I’ve always looked up to John Dingell – my good friend and a great Michigan legend. There was no need to ‘dis’ him in a crass political way. Most unfortunate and an apology is due,” Upton posted on Twitter.
Trump did not apologize.
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