WASHINGTON – Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to foresee the lesson of the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. “When you strike at a king,” Emerson famously said, “you must kill him.”
Trump’s foes struck at him but did not take him down.
With the end of the impeachment trial now in sight and acquittal assured, a triumphant Trump emerges from the biggest test of his presidency emboldened, ready to claim exoneration and take his case of grievance, persecution and resentment to the campaign trail.
The president’s Democratic adversaries rolled out the biggest constitutional weapon they had and failed to defeat him or even force a full trial with witnesses testifying to the allegations against him. Now Trump, who has said that the Constitution “allows me to do whatever I want” and pushed so many boundaries that curtailed past presidents, has little reason to fear the legislative branch nor any inclination to reach out in conciliation.
“I don’t think in any way Trump is willing to move on,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who teaches at Princeton University. “I think he will just have been given a green light, and he will claim not just acquittal but vindication, and he can do those things, and they can’t impeach him again. I think this is going to empower him to be much bolder. I would expect to see him even more let loose.”
Impeachment will always be a stain on Trump’s historical record, a reality that has stung him in private, according to some close to him. But he will be the first president in U.S. history to face voters after an impeachment trial, and that will give him the chance to argue for the next nine months that his enemies have spent his entire presidency plotting against him to undo the 2016 election.
“This was clearly a political coup d’état carried out by a group of people who were amazingly, openly dishonest, and I think it’s going to be repudiated,” said former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a strong ally of the president’s. “He’s been beaten up for three solid years, and he’s still standing. That’s an amazing achievement, if you think about it.”
Democrats insist that Trump has been damaged by the evidence presented to the public that he sought to use the power of his office to illicitly benefit his own re-election chances. Even as they line up to acquit him, some Senate Republicans have acknowledged that the House managers prosecuting the case proved that Trump withheld $391 million in security aid to Ukraine as part of an effort to pressure it to announce political investigations into his domestic rivals.
But the public comes out of the impeachment trial pretty close to where it was when it started, divided starkly down the middle, with somewhat more Americans against Trump than for him.
When the House impeached him in December, 47.4% supported the move and 46.5% opposed it, according to an analysis of multiple surveys by the polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight. Now as the trial wraps up, 49.5% favor impeachment versus 46.4% who do not.
Those numbers are strikingly close to the popular vote results from 2016, when Trump trailed Hillary Clinton 46% to 48% even as he prevailed in the Electoral College. That means that the public today is roughly where it was three years ago; few seem to have changed their minds. And the president has done nothing to expand his base and by traditional measures is a weak candidate for a second term, forcing him to try to pull the same Electoral College inside straight he did last time.
Trump is gambling that he can rally his most fervent supporters by making the case that he was the victim and not the villain of impeachment, while keeping disenchanted supporters on board with steady economic growth, rising military spending and conservative judicial appointments.
If Trump does win a second term, it would be the first time an impeached president had the opportunity to serve five years after his trial, and Trump’s critics worry that he would feel unbound. He has already used his power in ways that presidents since Richard Nixon considered out of line, like firing an FBI director who was investigating him and browbeating the Justice Department to investigate his political foes.
While in theory nothing in the Constitution would prevent the House from impeaching him again, as a political matter that seems implausible, given that he has demonstrated his complete command over congressional Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, leaving the president less to fear from a Democratic House. Some House managers warned that acquittal would lower the bar for presidential misconduct, meaning that Trump would feel even freer to use his power for his own benefit because he got away with it.
“He is going to ratchet it up to another level now,” said Anthony Scaramucci, the onetime White House communications director who has broken with Trump. “He’s going to Trump to the third power now.”
But in that, Scaramucci said, are the seeds of Trump’s own downfall because he could go so far that he finally alienates enough of the public to lose. “The one person who absolutely can beat Trump is Trump,” he said.