American voters have slammed President Donald Trump with the one thing he has always managed to avoid: a hard-stop of unyielding accountability.
No wonder he struggles to accept it.
Until now, life has taught Trump one overriding lesson. One way or another – with lawyers and lies, family money and shameless bluster – he has always found a way to skate past trouble.
Trump White House
When the US Justice Department sued his family business over racial discrimination, Trump counter-sued for defamation and managed to settle the case.
When he wanted more flattering publicity, he exaggerated his wealth and posed as someone else to boast to reporters about his romantic exploits.
When business ventures he launched with inherited money crashed, he found protection in more family cash and bankruptcy laws. For decades he has dodged creditors, stiffed contractors and held tax collectors at bay.
As he turned to politics, Trump wrote checks to resolve fraud allegations by Trump University students and to silence an adult film actress about their relationship. When his $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels became public, he lied about it.
The modern Republican Party, increasingly estranged from facts and reason, became an ideal hothouse for his deceit. Trump built his 2016 constituency on the lie that President Barack Obama was not really American, and on the false promise of a southern border wall financed by Mexico to protect Americans from criminal immigrants.
It was flim-flam – like his outlandish pledges on economic growth, health care, budget deficits and international “deals” of all kinds. Republican rivals first counted on voters to laugh him off. By the time Florida Sen. Marco Rubio labeled Trump a “con artist” and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz excoriated him as a “pathological liar,” it was too late.
Trump’s Electoral College lightning strike over Hillary Clinton turned out to be his high-water mark. From the first day of his presidency – when Trump sent then-press secretary Sean Spicer to make preposterous claims about his inauguration crowd – most Americans have told pollsters they consider him dishonest.
He is the only president in the polling era never to receive the approval of even half the American public. The first chance voters got to issue a verdict on his presidency, in the 2018 midterm elections, they handed control of the House to his Democratic adversaries.
Trump’s stranglehold on the nation’s Republican minority has provided safe harbor so long as Republicans are all he needs. That’s how he passed the 2017 tax cut, his only major legislative achievement.
That’s how, helped by a pliant attorney general, he shunted aside Robert Mueller’s evidence of obstruction of justice and conclusion that Trump welcomed Russia’s illegal assistance in 2016. That’s how he survived a Senate impeachment trial in which Republicans acknowledged he had pressured Ukraine to smear eventual 2020 opponent Joe Biden.
His niece Mary Trump, a psychologist, says her uncle’s lifelong protection from consequences has represented a form of “institutionalization” leaving him with the emotional maturity of a child. “And so far,” her book concluded, “he’s gotten away with everything.”
Last week’s general election was different.
Trump’s jury was not limited to fellow Republicans. It was the broader electorate of 150 million Americans, neither scared of nor dependent upon him.
To the contrary, tens of millions considered him a threat to be ousted from the White House. The long, painstaking tally – of mail-in ballots he sought to impede, of in-person votes he tried to discourage – showed a clear majority did just that, nationally and in more than enough battleground states.
For Trump, the outcome brings personal embarrassment, and more. Leaving office removes his sitting-president’s shield from prosecution as authorities in New York bear down.
Trump has reacted by denying reality and faulting the election itself. He dismisses votes against him as illegal, repeating the fables of Republicans who either share his delusions or pretend to, out of fear or ambition or profit-seeking. Rubio and Cruz, who long ago acquiesced to his intraparty clout, have fallen in line behind a legal fight without significant evidentiary support.
It recalls Trump’s brazen response to adversity when he couldn’t repay $40 million in real estate debts during the 2008 financial crisis. He sued his bankers for $3 billion, claiming they caused his problems by themselves triggering the crisis.
Then, it worked. The bankers backed off, settled and kept doing business with him.
It won’t work with a presidential election.
America and its role in the world are bigger than the Republican Party. Even Trump-friendly foreign leaders, like Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have recognized that Biden will replace Trump as president on January 20.
They accept the truth Trump keeps resisting. The voters have fired him. And there will be no settlement.