The conclusion of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial finally ends the ex-President’s stranglehold on Washington’s every waking moment and offers President Joe Biden a first chance to fully exercise his influence and power.
While the coming days in the capital may not be as wrenching as last week — which saw a horrific recreation of the terror inside the Capitol on January 6 by House impeachment managers — they will be even more critical to the nation’s short-term fate. Biden can now claim the full attention of Congress and the public as he seeks to drive through his relief package and end the pandemic, and will make his first official trip out of Washington since being sworn in.
But Trump’s acquittal at the hands of a majority of Republican senators Saturday also proved his personality cult will make him a dominant force in the internal civil war gripping the party in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections. His staying power even while out of office will therefore still have a huge impact on the mood in Washington, and Biden’s ability to bring the nation together.
Prominent Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and potential 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley are already maneuvering to take the party in a different direction. Only time will tell whether Trump’s influence will be quite so omnipresent when he is miles from the action in his luxury resort in Florida and Congress is no longer debating his political fate. And a flurry of legal concerns, stemming from his past business practices and attempts to steal last year’s election could further damage the future political prospects of an ex-President who was willing to destroy US democracy in a bid to stay in power.
The GOP’s never ending Trump dilemma
The trial showed that the Republican Party is in essentially the same place it has been since Trump descended his golden escalator in 2015. Many of its most prominent establishment leaders disdain the ex-President but remain scared to confront him because of his almost mystical bond with the conservative base. This has recently led the House GOP to legitimize its extremist, conspiratorial wing, by embracing pro-Trump Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — a strategy that threatens to drive away more centrist voters. Members of the House and Senate who voted to convict Trump meanwhile have faced censure from state parties and a backlash from voters back home.
There is the tiniest of openings for those who want to take the party in a post-Trump direction. Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and ex-South Carolina governor, used a Politico Magazine interview to distance herself from the ex-President ahead of his acquittal last week. And Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, another possible 2024 presidential hopeful, laid out the case for change on Sunday.
“This is not over. We’re going to decide over the next couple of years what the fate of Donald Trump and the Republican Party is,” Hogan told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Trump is treating his escape from justice as a political win, promising to “emerge soon” into the spotlight. The ex-President plans to use upcoming midterm primaries to seek revenge on Republicans who turned on him and to prove his staying power as the GOP’s de-facto leader.
Yet he has other worries. CNN has reported that the ex-President fears that he could face criminal charges over his incitement of the mob on January 6. And the legacy of the trial, and what it exposed, could permanently damage Trump. Stunning video evidence showed just how close to danger then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers came — and CNN’s Friday night reporting of new details about Trump’s January 6 phone call with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy raised serious questions about what the President knew and when. While it is conceivable that Trump could be a strong presidential primary contender in 2024, it’s more of a stretch to see him as a viable national candidate given the extreme methods he took to cling to power in 2020.
Republicans’ unwillingness to constrain Trump has led to two impeachments, the loss of the White House, the House and the Senate, multiple abuses of power and Trump’s botched handling of a pandemic that has killed nearly half a million Americans. But the party’s demographic foundation means that the only route to power still relies on a juiced turnout by Trump’s most loyal supporters.
This clash between power and principle is best underscored by McConnell’s contradictory behavior in the trial. The Kentucky Republican voted to acquit Trump on the dubious basis that the Constitution bars trying an impeached President once he has left office.
But immediately after casting his vote, the GOP leader blasted Trump in a speech on the Senate floor, saying his actions before the riot were a “disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty.” The straddle left McConnell facing charges of hypocrisy and extreme political expedience, especially since he set up the constitutional excuse for senators embarrassed to confront Trump’s crimes by refusing to hold the trial when Trump was still serving.
But everything McConnell does is explained by his driving desire to keep his conference together in the service of maintaining or recapturing power — in this case in next year’s midterms.
McConnell had seen how Rep. Liz Cheney had to fight for her number three post in House Republican leadership after voting to impeach Trump. Had he cast a similar vote, he would have surely faced a fight for his leadership or at the very least seen his authority with his conference shattered.
McConnell laid out the naked pragmatism of his thinking in a Politico interview — effectively signaling an effort to purge Trumpian influence— unless he needed pro-Trump candidates to help win back the Senate.
“The only thing I care about is electability,” McConnell said.
It is this kind of cynical strategizing that has made McConnell one of the most powerful congressional leaders since Lyndon Johnson. It has also led the Republican Party to a point where it cannot summon itself to punish a former President who staged an effective coup after losing an election.
The end of the impeachment trial means that for the first time since he became president last month, Biden will be able to bring the power of his office to bear, as he steps up his effort to win swift passage of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan with a 50-50 Senate that Democrats control because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break ties. The President will begin trips out of Washington this week — a rite of a new administration so far trimmed by Covid-19 — and participate in a CNN town hall on Tuesday night in Wisconsin. On Friday, Biden will seek to restore US global leadership in another departure from the Trump administration, by taking part in a virtual meeting of G7 leaders to discuss the pandemic.
Sen. Chris Murphy made a case on “State of the Union” Sunday that Democrats had effectively managed the trial, advanced Biden’s Cabinet nominees and are conducting negotiations on the Covid-19 relief package.
“We have been doing three things at once,” the Connecticut Democrat said. But that balancing act would have come unstuck had the trial dragged on much longer — a factor in Democratic senators pushing back at a surprise bid on Saturday by House Impeachment managers to call witnesses.
There is no time to lose since the success of Biden’s presidency — and the nation itself — will depend on his capacity to end the pandemic and rescue the economy. And the crisis is at a pivotal point. Cases of the virus are falling fast and death tolls, which typically lag new infections, will soon do the same. But new variants of Covid-19 that appear more contagious are spreading. This makes new funds for a vaccination drive contained in the congressional package increasingly crucial. With extended unemployment benefits set to run out in March, millions of Americans are relying on Congress. The bill also includes billions of dollars in funding to safely reopen schools — an increasingly troublesome political issue for the White House and a paramount concern for desperate parents.
“The American Rescue Plan has resources, $130 billion of resources, to facilitate and help schools get there,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
Her comments reflected the new reality that with Trump out of the picture, Biden is about to experience the full glare of scrutiny over the pandemic, the economy and every other unsolved national problem that ends up on a president’s desk.