On a day that was an apt leitmotif for his administration, Trump was formally accused of abusing power and obstructing Congress when Democrats finally transmitted articles of impeachment to the Senate. He then simply pressed on with the kind of unfettered conduct and violation of governing conventions that that got him in trouble in the first place, showing that for him impeachment might be a stain, but it won’t be a lesson.
“They have a hoax going on over there, let’s take care of it,” Trump told Republican senators who will serve as his jurors at the White House signing ceremony on Wednesday, in front of stony faced senior Chinese officials.
But after a tumultuous week at home and abroad, Trump is also telegraphing to his foes how his presidency will look when he’s armed with what he expects to be vindication from the Senate.
And he’s posing an implicit question — what constraints will remain when the Republican-led Senate has done his expected work and voted to block an attempt by the House to eject him from office. What are Democrats going to do — impeach him again?
Trump tests limits on power
Trump’s defiance of attempts to examine and restrain his conduct and concept of almost endless presidential authority encompasses the power duels in Washington and his bombastic actions abroad.
A week after a showdown with Iran nearly erupted into a new war in the Middle East, the administration is still defying congressional demands for more information about the rationale for killing Tehran’s top general.
Tensions deepened after the administration abruptly canceled briefings on the situation, with little explanation, days after it was accused — even by some Republicans — of insulting lawmakers conducting oversight duties.
The Iran crisis has revealed Trump’s belief that regular expectations of transparency and the need to explain grave decisions in a time of war do not apply to him. Last week, he told Fox News that he did not think Americans had a right to know the specific targets that the White House says were sized up by the dead Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
Trump also shocked Washington when he said that four US embassies were in the firing line but has presented no intelligence to back up the remark.
Partly to satisfy legal requirements, top officials first justified the strikes by saying that Iranian attacks on US targets were “imminent” and were being actively planned by the Soleimani, head of the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Now, in a sign of the administration’s brazen nature, Attorney General William Barr is arguing that the concept of imminence “is a red herring.”
Given the furor in Washington over impeachment, his remarks did not perhaps get appropriate attention. But they represent an extremely broad interpretation of the power of the President under the Constitution — a concept for which Barr is known.
The White House’s refusal to regularly brief reporters is another affront to normal transparency. Previous administration’s mounted comprehensive public relations strategies before and after military strikes to try to bring along the public and to build support for the President.
This administration has been defiant. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has done the media rounds and appeared at the White House podium with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But such efforts seem more intended to rebuke critics of the administration’s actions and to goad the media than to persuade.
The death of Soleimani was in itself a sign of Trump’s refusal to accept guardrails that might have constrained other presidents. The drone strike at Baghdad’s airport appeared to enshrine a new principle that targeting senior foreign leaders was now an acceptable tool of US foreign policy. In itself, the President’s decision to escalate things reportedly shocked some senior military planners.
Trends echo on Ukraine and Iran
In both cases he wielded power largely unilaterally, unrestrained by experienced foreign policy officials who were purged from his circle for trying to control his wilder impulses. In the case of Ukraine, Trump appears to have used presidential authority for personal political ends. Many opponents believe that his motivation in eliminating Soleimani was also motivated by politics — a recurring them throughout his foreign policy.
Just as he sees no need to brief members in Congress about the in-depth intelligence behind the Soleimani strike, Trump has no qualms over withholding key witnesses from the impeachment investigation in an aggressive assertion of blanket, absolute executive immunity.
Even his perpetual disrespect for facts and frequent lies are an assertion of power. Trump has shown that when a politician in a democracy is not bound by a nation’s common concept of reality, he can open up entirely new avenues he can use to assert his power.
The President also stepped on Congress’ power of the purse by allegedly withholding $400 million in military aid granted to Ukraine by lawmakers in order to try to coerce its leaders to investigate his potential political opponent in Joe Biden.
Trump’s capacity to act with such impunity in these cases is a testament to his unchallenged power over his party’s grass roots — a block of support he can leverage to intimidate GOP lawmakers who might think of checking him.
Any Republican politician who lacks their own national power base and who wants a future in the GOP ranks has no political running room to question Trump’s behavior in Ukraine or ultimately to support impeachment.
Trump’s aura of omnipotence is informed by the lessons of his life in business and innumerable legal scrapes to politics. A barnstorming personality who blasts through restraints and never allows adversaries to take stock of the damage is a powerful political force. Trump’s lack of shame at outlandish behavior, refusal to ever apologize and audacity constantly restocks his political capital.
It’s one reason why Democrats said they had no option to impeach the President over his off-the-books diplomatic scheme in Ukraine.
“We’ve always felt a certain urgency about this impeachment, given that the President was trying to get foreign help in cheating in the next election,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, said Wednesday.
Trump knows what’s good for him — politically
The way that Trump leads in times of crisis is not just the symptom of an unruly personality. It may also illustrate a shrewd political judgment.
The one thing no one can say about Trump is that he went native in Washington. He has been true to the disruptive, glass-shattering persona that wrecked the most promising field of conservative Republican White House hopefuls in a generation and built an impregnable political base.
The barking authoritarian boss that Trump played on NBC’s “The Apprentice” was an attractive image to many heartland Americans furious with politicians of all stripes who simply wanted the Washington establishment torn down.
Trump has bent the presidency to his raucous requirements and refused to obey its behavioral codes fashioned over two-and-a-half centuries.
So, it’s unthinkable that Trump will emerge from his impeachment drama chastened. He is instead likely to perceive validation for his conduct, and may consider, since he is branded with a historic badge of honor, that he has not got much more to lose and could shed even more restraints.
With congressional Democrats having played their most important card, the courts could become the last line of constitutional defense.
Trump has repeatedly chafed at restrictions, injunctions and stays inflicted on him by judges — though the swift clip that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is maintaining in confirming conservatives to the bench could start to change things. Still, one judge recently rebuked the President by writing that “presidents are not kings.”
Federal courts have repeatedly frustrated Trump, especially regarding his hardline immigration policies.
Once the impeachment drama finally ends, American politics will coalesce around the looming presidential election. It will be a reminder that the ultimate clash between Trump and accountability will come in November.
Impeachment only happened because voters who apparently favored more presidential restraint handed Democrats the House in midterm elections. They will get their chance to weigh in again on Trump’s unconstrained vision of politics again in less than 10 months.