President Donald Trump is set to shed the cloud of impeachment and emerge potentially stronger than ever.
He pressured Ukraine to help his campaign, but will almost certainly be acquitted of abusing his powers. He defied congressional subpoenas but likely will be acquitted of obstructing Congress. And looking back, he undermined the Russia investigation, but was immune from criminal charges. He hasn’t even released his tax returns yet, though other candidates and presidents have done so for decades.
Over and over, Trump has done things that it seems like only he could get away with. And in the process, he’s changed the game in terms of what a president can do, smashing norms and ignoring traditions along the way.
After finally moving on from an election-interference scandal with Russia, it took Trump all of 24 hours to stumble into another one, this time with Ukraine.
It went down last summer, after special counsel Robert Mueller’s shaky appearance on Capitol Hill. Mueller testified about how Trump’s campaign had welcomed Russian interference in 2016, and capitalized on Russian hacks, but its actions didn’t rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy.
Falsely believing that his actions had been fully exonerated, Trump moved on to the next election. In a now-infamous phone call the day after Mueller testified, he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his top 2020 rival – a brazen solicitation of election meddling.
From investigation to impeachment
The moment Trump emerged from a criminal investigation, he triggered an impeachment inquiry. That inquiry is expected to culminate with his acquittal in the Senate, after Republicans block any additional witnesses from testifying about his Ukraine dealings.
These boom-and-bust cycles of investigations have unearthed substantial evidence of wrongdoing by the President – without any apparent consequences. After three years of near-constant investigations, Trump’s powers seem stronger than ever, and he hasn’t conceded an inch.
Some Democrats warned that was always a risk of impeachment – that Trump may emerge emboldened to take even more aggressive steps as he fights for reelection.
“He got on the phone with Zelensky asking for this favor the day after Bob Mueller testifies,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the lead Democratic House manager, said Thursday on the Senate floor. “What do you think he is capable of doing the day after he’s acquitted here? The day after, he feels, I dodged another bullet. I really am beyond the reach of the law.”
Schiff continued, blasting Attorney General William Barr for taking the position that Trump can’t be indicted or even investigated while in office. Justice Departments have argued that position in several lawsuits. Trump’s lawyers told a federal appeals court that he couldn’t be prosecuted if he murdered someone on the streets of New York City while he was the sitting President.
Trump’s critics – Democrats and ostracized Republicans alike – have raised these alarms with new urgency, fearing that Trump might stop at nothing to win reelection, because nobody has stopped him while he’s skirmished with the rule of law over the last few years.
Since his 2017 inauguration, Trump has shattered one norm after another: He publicly pressured the Justice Department to investigate his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton. He said former FBI officials who had spoken out against him deserve to be jailed. He spent two years spreading lies about the Mueller investigation, which found strong evidence that he had obstructed justice along the way.
It’s not clear what he has in mind for the rest of his presidency, whether that lasts only one more year or extends to 2024. In arguments during the Senate trial, Trump’s lawyers controversially claimed that he can use his office to get reelected, if he believes it’s in the national interest, and that it isn’t illegal to accept credible information about political opponents from foreign powers.
That’s a combustible mix for someone with Trump’s views. Last summer, he told ABC News that he’d take help from a foreign nation because “there isn’t anything wrong with listening.” (Federal campaign finance laws make it illegal to solicit or accept anything of value from a foreign national, though Mueller struggled to use these laws to charge anyone in the 2016 debacle.)
Perhaps with those concerns in mind, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah contrasted his own 2012 presidential race with Trump’s scorched-earth campaigns. Romney is one of the few Senate Republicans who has challenged Trump and said more witnesses should be subpoenaed.
“I sort of watch how the President reacts to his opponents, and it’s not the way I did it,” Romney told The New York Times earlier this week. “But you know what? He won and I didn’t. On the other hand, he won and I didn’t, but I would not have done what he’s done in order to win.”
Pressed for details, Romney said only, “I would not have done some of the things he did.”