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Fear and loathing inside the White House

Abandoned by some in his own party, Trump could do nothing but watch history unfold on television. (Photo: Getty Image)Premium
Abandoned by some in his own party, Trump could do nothing but watch history unfold on television. (Photo: Getty Image)

  • Enduring a historic second impeachment, Donald Trump is grappling with the limits to his brand of politics.
  • If the Senate were to convict, Trump could be disqualified from holding future office. Only a majority of senators would be needed to ban him, unlike the two-thirds needed to convict

His place in the history books rewritten, President Donald Trump endured his second impeachment largely alone and silent.

For more than four years, Trump has dominated the national discourse like no one before him. Yet, when his legacy was set in stone on Wednesday evening, he was stunningly left on the sidelines.

Trump now stands with no equal, the only president to be charged twice with a high crime or misdemeanour—a new coda for a presidential term defined by a deepening of the nation’s divides, the many failures during the worst pandemic in a century and a refusal to accept defeat at the ballot box.

Trump kept out of sight in a nearly empty White House as impeachment proceedings played out at the heavily fortified US Capitol.

Abandoned by some in his own party, Trump could do nothing but watch history unfold on television. The suspension of his Twitter account deprived Trump of his most potent means to keep Republicans in line, giving a sense that Trump had been defanged and, for the first time, his hold on his adopted party was in question.

He was finally heard from hours after the vote, in a subdued video that condemned the insurrection at the Capitol and warned his supporters from engaging in any further violence. It was a message that was largely missing one week earlier, when rioters marching in Trump’s name descended on the Capitol to try to prevent Congress from certifying president-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

“I want to be very clear: I unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw last week," said Trump. He added that “no true supporter" of his “could ever endorse political violence."

But that message, partially motivated to ward off legal exposure for sparking the riot, ran contrary to what Trump has said throughout his term, including when he urged his supporters to “fight" for him last week. Trump said not a word about his impeachment in the video, though he complained about the ban on his social media accounts.

With only a week left in Trump’s term, there were no bellicose messages from the White House about fighting the proceedings on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and no organized legal response. Some congressional Republicans did defend the president during the House debate on impeachment, their words carrying across the same space violated by rioters one week earlier during a siege of the citadel of democracy that left five dead.

In the end, 10 Republicans voted to impeach.

Marked change

It was a marked change from Trump’s first impeachment. That December 2019 vote in the House, which made Trump only the third president ever to be impeached, played out along partisan lines. The charges then were that he had used the powers of the office to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political foe, Joe Biden, now the president-elect.

At that time, the White House was criticized for failing to create the kind of robust “war room" that president Bill Clinton mobilized during his own impeachment fight. Nonetheless, Trump allies did mount their own pushback campaign. There were lawyers, White House messaging meetings, and a media blitz run by allies on conservative television, radio and websites.

Trump was acquitted in 2020 by the GOP-controlled Senate and his approval ratings were undamaged. But this time, some members of his own party recoiled and accused him of committing impeachable offences. A presidency centered on the bombastic declaration “I alone can fix it" seemed to be ending with a whimper.

The third-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, said there had “never been a greater betrayal" by a president. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told colleagues in a letter that he had not decided how he would vote in an impeachment trial.

But for the first time, Trump’s future seemed in doubt, and what was once unthinkable—that enough Republican senators would defy him and vote to remove him from office—seemed at least possible, if unlikely.

But there was no effort from the White House to line up votes in the president’s defense. The team around Trump is hollowed out, with the White House counsel’s office not drawing up a legal defense plan and the legislative affairs team largely abandoned. Trump leaned on Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, to push Republican senators to oppose removal. Graham’s spokesman said the senator was making the calls of his own volition.

Trump and his allies believed that the president’s sturdy popularity with the lawmakers’ GOP constituents would deter them from voting against him.

The president was livid with perceived disloyalty from McConnell and Cheney and has been deeply frustrated that he could not hit back with his Twitter account, which has kept Republicans in line for years. Trump watched much of the day’s proceedings on TV from the White House residence and his private dining area off the Oval Office.

His paramount concern, beyond his legacy, was what a second impeachment could do to his immediate political and financial future, according to four White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing. They were not authorized to discuss private conversations and thus spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The loss of his Twitter account and fundraising lists could complicate Trump’s efforts to remain a GOP kingmaker and potentially run again in 2024. Moreover, Trump seethed at the blows being dealt to his business, including the withdrawal of a PGA tournament from one of his golf courses and the decision by New York City to cease dealings with his company.

All eyes on McConnell

Outgoing Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has said the Senate will not begin a trial until next Tuesday, at the very earliest, which is the day before Democrat Joe Biden is sworn in as president. It’s unclear, for now, exactly how that trial will proceed and if any Senate Republicans will vote to convict Trump.

Once the House votes to impeach, the speaker of the House can send the article or articles over to the Senate immediately—or she can wait a while. Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t yet said when she will send them, but many Democrats in her caucus have urged her to do so immediately. Pelosi has already appointed nine impeachment managers to argue the case against Trump in a Senate trial, a sign that she will send them sooner rather than later.

Once the articles are sent over—that is usually done with an official walk from the House to the Senate—then, the majority leader of the Senate must start the process of having a trial.

The Senate is not scheduled to be in session until 19 Jan, which could be McConnell’s last day as Senate leader. Once vice president Kamala Harris is sworn in, making her the president of the Senate, and Georgia’s two Democratic senators are also sworn in, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer will take charge and determine how the trial will proceed.

McConnell said he will not bring the Senate back on an emergency basis to start the trial. That means the trial is certain to take place after Trump has already left office. McConnell noted that the three previous Senate trials lasted “83 days, 37 days, and 21 days, respectively."

McConnell believes that Trump committed impeachable offences and considers the Democrats’ impeachment drive an opportunity to reduce the divisive, chaotic president’s hold on the GOP, a Republican strategist told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

And McConnell told major donors over the weekend that he was through with Trump, said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe McConnell’s conversations. His wife, former transportation secretary Elaine Chao, resigned from Trump’s cabinet soon after the riots.

But despite sending signals, McConnell has been characteristically quiet in public. In a note to colleagues Wednesday released by his office, McConnell said he had “not made a final decision on how I will vote." If McConnell voted to convict, other Republicans would surely follow. But no GOP senators have said how they will vote, and two-thirds of the Senate is needed. Still, some Republicans have told Trump to resign, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and few are defending him.

Other Republicans have said that impeachment would be divisive. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, long a key ally of the president, has been critical of his behaviour in inciting the riots but said impeachment “will do far more harm than good."

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in last year’s impeachment trial, after the House impeached Trump over his dealings with the president of Ukraine.

If the Senate were to convict, lawmakers could then take a separate vote on whether to disqualify Trump from holding future office.

Schumer said Wednesday: “Make no mistake, there will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate; there will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanours; and if the president is convicted, there will be a vote on barring him from running again."

In the case of federal judges who were impeached and removed from office, the Senate has taken a second vote after conviction to determine whether to bar the person from ever holding federal office again.

Only a majority of senators would be needed to ban him from future office, unlike the two-thirds needed to convict.

The four-page article of impeachment says that Trump “gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of Government."

The article says Trump’s behaviour is consistent with his prior efforts to “subvert and obstruct" the results of the election and references his recent call with the Georgia secretary of state, in which he said he wanted him to find him more votes after losing the state to Biden. Trump has falsely claimed there was widespread fraud in the election, and the baseless claims have been repeatedly echoed by congressional Republicans and the insurgents who descended on the Capitol.

The coming pushback

A White House spokesman did not respond to questions about whether anyone in the building was trying to defend Trump. One campaign adviser, Jason Miller, argued Democrats’ efforts will serve to galvanize the Republican base behind Trump and end up harming Biden. He blamed the Democrats’ swift pace for the silence, saying there wasn’t “time for mounting a traditional response operation". But he pledged that “the real battle will be (in) the Senate where there’ll be a more traditional pushback effort."

The reminders of the Capitol siege were everywhere as the House moved toward the impeachment roll call.

Some of the Capitol’s doors were broken and windows were shattered. A barricade had gone up around outside the building and there were new checkpoints. Hundreds of members of the National Guard patrolled the hallways, even sleeping on the marble floors of the same rotunda that once housed Abraham Lincoln’s casket.

And now, the Capitol is the site of more history, adding to the chapter that features Clinton, impeached 21 years ago for lying under oath about his relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and Andrew Johnson, impeached 151 years ago for defying the Congress on Reconstruction. Another entry is for Richard Nixon, who avoided impeachment by resigning during the Watergate investigation.

But Trump, the only one impeached twice among those in that short ignominious list, will once more be alone.

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