On Wednesday, on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, in the damaged Capitol in a rattled Washington in a wounded, teetering country, in these taxing, waning hours of the unprecedented and incendiary presidency of Donald John Trump, members of Congress from both parties but especially Democrats said he had to be held accountable.
“Donald Trump must be held accountable,” said Judy Chu from California. “He must be impeached.”
“Our nation cannot begin to heal,” said Elaine Luria of Virginia, “until there is accountability.”
“There must be accountability,” Peter Meijer, a freshman from Michigan and one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, said Wednesday evening on CNN.
With the lawmakers’ late afternoon vote—232 yea, 197 nay—Trump became the first president in American history to be impeached twice. That’s principally because of the volume, consistency and gravity of his record of transgressions, capped by the horrific specificity of the charge of “willful incitement of insurrection.”
The twice, though, is a consequence, too, of the reality that the first impeachment in the House ended not with a conviction in the Senate but with an acquittal. Congress as a whole, in other words, tried already, in late 2019 and early 2020, to hold him accountable in this way, and did not. To that point, it was merely the highest-profile, highest-stakes version of a litany of such chances—spanning decades, from New York to New Jersey to Washington, to punish or banish an unabashed and underhanded Trump—all of which in the end similarly fizzled or failed.
So Republicans now, starting with party leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and domino-falling from there, have a chance to do something nobody has ever actually accomplished. They can do more than slow Trump down. They can bring him down. They can stop him for good.
Trump has never seemed so weak. Because of the events of the last few months but in particular just this past harrowing week—his fair-and-square reelection loss; his looming financial troubles; his mounting legal jeopardy; his social media muzzling, his approval rating plunging to new lows, even among Republicans, and corporate America censuring him and even abandoning him—Trump’s never been this close to comeuppance.
Always, though, Trump has possessed a strange power to survive moments of self-inflicted crisis, to convert torrents of negative publicity—what almost anybody else would experience as disgrace or shame—into a new strain of propellant. It’s part of what’s made it so hard over the years for so many people to pin on him anything resembling his just deserts. And it’s part of what has made him feel so durably invulnerable. The question, then, looking ahead to a Senate trial and more broadly the coming weeks, months and years: Is this, finally, the endgame for this sort of sorcery from Trump? Or is it possible that he could do, again, even in the face of all of this, what he’s done over and over: evade the most serious consequences and emerge darkly emboldened?
“He’s got this evil genius for self-promotion and sort of this catch-me-if-you-can attitude that he’s going to keep crossing the line and ‘fuck you, try to stop me.’ And more often than not, he doesn’t get stopped,” Trump biographer Harry Hurt told me this week. “He is fueled by grievance. This is his fuel. They just gave him high octane,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus said. “If it were possible to find a form of overreach that could restore him on some level,” a swing-state GOP consultant said of another round of impeachment, “it’s this.”
No way, others told me. “Not this time. Trump has crossed the line where Americans, regardless of political affiliation, agree and acknowledge it’s time for him to go,” former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen said. “It is not just the impeachment but the circumstances around this one,” said Mike DuHaime, a GOP strategist and former top adviser to Chris Christie. “People died. The mob murdered a police officer.” The first impeachment, former Trump political adviser Sam Nunberg said, was “bullshit.” This one? “This one is bad.”
“Obviously,” said Max Steele, who runs the so-called Trump War Room for the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, “one of the key lessons we learned through 2015 and through 2016—and here we are, right?—is never, never, write him off or underestimate him.”
“He cannot escape this one. There is no way,” Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Joe Biden when the president-elect was the vice president, told me. “He deserves to be convicted in the Senate.”
Still, it’s worth reiterating: If Trump is convicted, if he’s barred from ever running again for president or for anything else, or if he’s driven to the kind of permanent financial ruin he’s shirked before, or if he’s prosecuted and found guilty, if he’s imprisoned, if he’s not just tsk-tsked but snuffed out, it’ll be a first—the first time, ever, that he’s been, utterly, inarguably and indelibly, held to account.
Trump got to this point—America got to this point—because nobody ever stopped him. It’s been going on for half a century.
In 1973, the Department of Justice sued Trump (along with his father and their company), alleging widespread racism in their rental practices in their dozens of New York apartment buildings. At the knee of the notorious Roy Cohn, jumpstarting what even today might be his most enduringly formative relationship and flashing fledgling techniques he’s relied on with clockwork predictably ever since, a twentysomething Trump turned what could have been a stain from the start into an absolute launching pad. He denied, delayed and distracted. He raged against the charge, eliciting blaring headlines, such a brazen tussle overshadowing the actual substance and seriousness of the case at base.
He eventually settled and signed a decree in which he wasn’t forced to admit fault but did commit to making real changes to make their rentals less white. But the non-self-executing resolution banked on no small share of good faith and good will. Trump was instead unrepentant. He failed to comply fully with the terms, all along calling the loss a win—which it effectively kind of was, as he simply went ahead and used Cohn and Cohn’s web of connections to wrangle from the struggling city monster tax breaks to complete the projects (the renovation of a midtown motel, the erection of Trump Tower) that would begin to make him name-known and grease the skids for all of what was to come. “Did Trump get nailed? No. He basically got out of it,” Cohn cousin David Lloyd Marcus told me a few years ago. The takeaway for the young Trump: “The law doesn’t matter, the government’s mission doesn’t matter—it’s who can be the biggest blusterer and bullshitter.”
In the mid-’80s, Trump bought a team in the second-tier United States Football League in an undisguised attempt to side-door his way into the bigger, better National Football League. It didn’t work. He managed in three short years in his challenge of the NFL to kill the USFL. It was a clear loss in court. And it was his fault. “Everyone let Donald Trump take over,” said one of his fellow owners. “It was our death.” He refused to concede those facts. Rather, he pivoted in earnest to try to fix Wollman Rink, the ice-skating venue in Central Park that long had been closed due to city government bumbling. It very transparently was a publicity stunt, his eye-rolling critics scoffed, and it assuredly was that—but it wasn’t just that. Badmouthing mayor Ed Koch, his administration and really the public sector as a whole, Trump weaved an argument against government itself, casting himself in an easy-to-understand storyline as a kind of benevolent knight as well as a hero of private enterprise.
The early ’90s presented a new level of test to plow through defeat. In the throes of a lime-lit divorce and deep in debt, confronted with the ramifications of his financial and personal recklessness in the late ’80s, Trump parried the peril of this double-barreled threat—embracing the Cohn-stoked conviction that attention, good, bad or otherwise, is power. He all but dared his lenders in New York and state regulators of his casinos in New Jersey to stop him. They did not.
“Even when celebrities commit crimes, they’re still celebrities, and the average person revels in their capacity to defeat the system, to rebel against the system,” Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York-based Democratic strategist, told me the other day. “And that celebrity becomes the embodiment of the real desires that the viewers want, which is to get even, to watch somebody else game it, and God bless ‘em as they go forward. He gamed the system, and he won.”
“When I went to work for him, people presumed he was dead,” said Marcus, who started working for Trump in 1994. He was not. “Trump will never just fade away. He never did.”
Distilled down to a single phrase, it’s how Trump, “the ultimate survivor,” one of his former casino executives once told me, survived the ’90s, which is how in spite of his business crash-and-burn he was still in a position to play the role of the omniscient business boss on “The Apprentice,” which was irrefutably a key piece of his pitch in his presidential run, which was a campaign, of course, defined by moments that should have felled him but didn’t (from his slander of John McCain to his wanton comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape and everything in between), all of which augured his tawdry, tumultuous, impeachment-stamped tenure in the White House.
“A ruler sows destruction. He is brought down and punished according to the law and logic of his era. But then something terrifying happens. The disgraced ruler becomes even more powerful—precisely by trading on his disgrace,” a scholar wrote in the buildup to Trump’s first impeachment. “People of any era must be prepared for the terrifying possibility that even their clearest logic and their harshest legal punishments can’t always put an end to a good story,” he continued. “They might even amplify the story’s appeal for certain audiences. History shows, again and again, that once someone becomes the object of popular fascination they can mostly do what they like …”
There are, needless to say, nearly limitless differences between Trump and Napoleon—the latter, just for starters, ran a tight ship as a leader, even on the island of Elba after he was ousted as continent-conquering French emperor—but one overarching similarity is a certain audacity, the practically alchemic capacity to do what shouldn’t be able to be done, and to get away with it. In Braude’s 2018 book, The Invisible Emperor: Napoleon on Elba from Exile to Escape, Braude sketches the remarkable scene in 1815 in Napoleon’s almost daredevil march back toward Paris when he first encountered soldiers who had taken oaths to protect this territory from enemies—now including him. Napoleon walked unarmed to within 20 feet of the row of musket-clutching infantrymen.
“Soldiers!” Napoleon proclaimed. “Do you not recognize me?”
The response was silence. Ultimately, of course, Napoleon would be beaten again, at Waterloo, and subsequently sent to the far more distant island of Saint Helena, off the western coast of Africa. Here, though, a couple hundred miles inland from the Mediterranean, he walked closer. Closer. To within 12 feet.
He opened his coat.
His torso was a target.
“Do some of you,” he said, according to Andrew Roberts’ biography “want to kill me?”
A cold wind blew.
Nobody fired a shot.
Regardless of whether one interprets that spectacle as one of bravery, lunacy, bald grandiosity, a staggering sense of untouchability, or all of the above, Trump has been opening his coat for years.
Even so, since the election he lost, he’s done little but ratchet up his culpability and legal liability—refusing for weeks to concede, refusing to speak the name of his successor, refusing to facilitate the transition in any traditional fashion or so much as meet with Joe Biden, fomenting calamitous unrest with the prospect for more with his ceaseless, baseless talk of fraud, making mob-talk phone calls to election officials in decisive states to try unsuccessfully to alter the outcome of the results. He’s characteristically doubled, tripled and quadrupled down. On Tuesday, he called his speech before his supporters stormed the Capitol “totally appropriate,” the protests around the country for racial justice from last summer the “real problem,” and his re-impeachment a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”
“Unless you’re fully on the Trump train, you probably believe he helped incite insurrection. Which means you believe there should be some form of punishment,” Republican consultant Doug Heye told me. “He’s cratering with everyone that isn’t his most loyal MAGA base,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and a former adviser to Eric Cantor when he was the House majority leader.
“Up until now I had not thought that we could count him out. I’ve always thought it was possible that he’d make a comeback. But he crossed the Rubicon and suffered the Ides of March on the same day,” Jen Mercieca, a rhetoric professor at Texas A&M and the author of Demagogue for President. “I think the hammer is coming down on the guy for a lifetime of cons and bullying and he won’t be able to stop it. Even though he’s always stopped it before. His defiance was his fatal flaw. It helped him to get out of trouble a million times, but it smited him in the end.”
Not so fast, others told me.
“I think Trump’s influence in the party and the Trumpism of the party’s not going to change at all,” said Stuart Stevens, the top strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who wrote the book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.
“I think with the majority of Americans it will be seen as a permanent disqualifier,” said Rick Wilson, the Florida-based Republican consultant and a key member of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. And yet: “I think trying to overthrow the legal government of the United States will be seen by his base as a badge of honor.”
Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Republican speakers of the House John Boehner and Paul Ryan who’s been straightforward with his criticism of Trump, said he thinks he’s “still far and away the most likely GOP nominee” in 2024.
Even if he’s not, though, that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t continue to hold significant sway within Republican politics and American life in general. “The lie outlasts the liar,” as Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian and the author of On Tyranny, recently put it. I heard versions of this again and again in the last few days in my conversations with longtime Trump watchers and political professionals and experts. History—Trump’s history, history period—suggests as much.
“The story can keep going without Trump,” said Braude, drawing on his Napoleon expertise. “The beast is going to keep going without him.” After we talked the other night, he sent me an email: “Napoleon’s unique skill was to take any event (or even non-event) in any way remotely connected to him and then make himself the central protagonist of said event, now presented as a gripping story. By protagonist I don’t exclusively mean hero. He could play the victim as well.”
Trump, judging from his whole life, not only could play the victim but has and does and will.
“He’s a grievance machine,” said Pete Ditto, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Victimization seems like a form of weakness, but it can also be a source of power.”
“What he represents to those who follow him,” said Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist, who’s known Trump for decades, “is a very simple phrase, which is: ‘Look what they did to us again.’ And Trump is the guy that says, ‘Look what they did to me—now help me finish them off.’”
This will be true, Sheinkopf said, regardless of whether or not Trump is still the president, regardless of whether he was impeached twice, and perhaps in some twisted way because he’s no longer the president and because he was impeached twice.
“He will continue to have this power,” he said. “Because to his followers, he will be a victim of the powerful, who are now turning this into a racially diverse, non-white-male-dominant, non-blue-collar environment. He will be the hero of the put-upon who have been stabbed in the back…by those who run government. Which is how shame and disgrace become honor and a battle cry.”
Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, speaking in defense of the president during Wednesday’s debate, made a version of this very point. He warned the Democrats, “even if you are successful today, and were the Senate to convict President Trump, yours will be a pyrrhic victory. For instead of stopping the Trump train, his movement will grow stronger, for you will have made him a martyr.”
Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/01/13/trump-impeachment-accountability-459151