After every brush with political accountability Donald Trump becomes both more more vengeful and more lawless.
He escaped a criminal charge for obstructing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation by dint of a contested Justice Department rule prohibiting the indictment of sitting presidents. His subordinates escaped charges of conspiring with Russia to subvert the 2016 election by dint of legal technicalities and the unusual caution of Mueller’s team.
Trump’s loyal attorney general, Bill Barr, did his best to deceive the public about just how damning the contents of the Mueller report really were, leaving Trump unchastened. Like a proper sociopath, he interpreted having dodged a bullet as evidence of his own invincibility. He made his incriminating July 25 phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky one day after Mueller testified about his findings to Congress, and had by then had already ordered Barr to carry out his revenge against players and witnesses in the investigation by placing them under investigation themselves.
The aftermath of impeachment promises to follow the same pattern. As Adam Schiff, the House’s lead impeachment manager, noted in his closing arguments, “the odds, if left in office, that [Trump] will continue trying to cheat [are] 100 percent.” And it is this fact of Trump’s character that will require Democrats to remain vigilant, on war footing, now that Republicans have seen Trump through to a nominal acquittal.
Trump reportedly claims to want his former national security adviser John Bolton—who never actually testified to the House or Senate—criminally prosecuted for unarticulated crimes. His power to harass members of Congress is more limited, but he may be able to scotch or delay publication of Bolton’s forthcoming tell-all book, or to cast doubt over any revelations Senate Republicans voted to conceal, through a proactive character-assassination campaign. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has already broadcast the name of the person alleged to be the whistleblower on the Senate floor; his other Senate henchmen have promised to investigate other key actors in the impeachment process.
But again this vengefulness is only part of the pattern, and the greater risk to Democrats in the country won’t likely stem from the abuses he undertakes to settle scores, but in what he’ll do to cheat now that Senate Republicans have effectively told him they’ll help him get away with it.
A number of Senate Republicans now claim to believe Trump did what Democrats accused him of doing, that he shouldn’t have done it, but that he should nevertheless escape punishment. They claim to believe that the impeachment itself constitutes the punishment, and that he will thus feel disinclined to commit similar offenses as the election approaches.
Senators like Collins are almost certainly lying rather than deluded when they claim to believe Trump has been brought down a peg, but they are nevertheless the only members of the Republican Party who have offered even a word of honest commentary about Trump’s conduct. When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) emerged as the face of this contingent, the fact that he was willing to admit Trump had done something wrong was widely interpreted within the political establishment as progress of a kind—so much for Trump’s claim that he did nothing wrong!
In this mad scramble to find shards of decency in the moral wreckage of the GOP, the optimists overlooked the explicit permission these same Republicans have given Trump to subvert the 2020 election.
On Sunday Alexander himself told NBC’s Chuck Todd that if Trump “was upset about Joe Biden and his son and what they were doing in Ukraine, he should have called the Attorney General and told him that and let the Attorney General handle it the way they always handle cases that involve public figures.” Todd revealingly accepted Alexander’s suggestion as if it were a point of obvious principle—“And why do you think he didn’t do that?”—but it actually described an abuse of power that would’ve been unthinkable before Trump’s presidency.
Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) naturally stand ready to sabotage Biden or any other leading Democrats at Trump’s request. But why would Trump settle for using partisan Senate committees to undermine his political opponents when his most senior Republican “critic” just advised him to use the Justice Department instead. The number of Republicans who think Trump should be removed from office for coercing Ukraine to ruin his political enemies is zero; the number of Republicans who believe Congress is entitled to evidence of this scheme is zero; the number of Republicans who will admit that this was unseemly is perhaps a dozen, but they have let Alexander speak for them, and he has essentially advised Trump to be less obvious about it going forward.
House Democrats have yet to reveal how they intend to proceed, but vindicating the impeachment, and further indicting Republicans for completing Trump’s coverup should be central to their efforts. When concealed elements of the Ukraine scandal come to light, they will underscore Republican complicity in the scheme, and by unearthing evidence of corruption in other realms Democrats will expose just how happy Republicans have been to abet Trump’s crimes.
The investigative powers of the House can still be put to use, including in an open impeachment process; Trump will feel more liberated than he already was to defy all congressional subpoenas, but it’s simply not the case that impeachment investigators found the only 17 people in all the federal government and its vast web of contractors who have witnessed grave abuses. And to the extent that Trump will continue trying to nullify congressional oversight, Democrats have other powers as well. Between their control of the House and the Senate’s filibuster rules, they can condition funding for the obstructing offices—of the attorney general, the secretary of state, the OMB director, and others—on the timely production of subpoenaed documents.
The alternative to taking aggressive steps like these would be to leave the eventual Democratic nominee exposed to political investigation or prosecution, and allow Trump to flood the political news environment with disinformation to obscure the central fact of his unmatched criminality. In a world of absolute Republican fealty to Donald Trump, the purpose of impeachment was to make Republicans indict themselves as coconspirators in Trump’s corruption. That toll has been successfully extracted, but it can still be squandered.