Welcome to a dark day in America’s modern experiment with democracy. Despite becoming the first president ever to receive votes from both parties to convict and remove him from office in an impeachment trial, President Donald Trump today woke up in the White House unbound.
Senator Susan Collins justified her vote to acquit the president Tuesday by saying she hopes the impeachment trial has taught Trump a “lesson,” but it’s clear from the president’s words and actions that the opposite is true. After emerging unscathed from a criminal probe and political impeachment, there’s no one left to stop him. Today marks the day where the worst—and least democratic—impulses of Donald Trump are unofficially unleashed.
Trump survived the Mueller investigation and a scathing report of corruption and attempted abuses of power that would have devastated any normal presidential administration. Then, the day after Congress made clear it would not act on Mueller’s findings, Trump picked up the phone, called Ukraine’s president, and asked him for a “favor”: investigating the family of his political rival Joe Biden.
The news of that actual abuse of power touched off five months of impeachment hearings, two articles of impeachment charging presidential high crimes and misdemeanors, and a joke of a trial where the Republican-controlled Senate did everything possible to avoid coming face to face with the evidence and venality of the president’s crimes. And yet even his own party, deep down, knows that the president’s actions were wrong.
“The president is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust,” GOP senator Mitt Romney said Wednesday as he announced that he would make the conviction vote bipartisan. “It was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security interests, and our fundamental values. Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”
And yet, hours later, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chamber voted to acquit the president, choosing to be on record—vote by vote, 51 times—as complicit in Donald Trump’s abuse of America’s rule of law.
Which brings us to today.
Donald Trump today stands unleashed and uncontrolled.
Today, 10 months remain in an election where the president now knows that there is practically nothing he can do that would cause his removal from office. The Justice Department maintains that Trump cannot be criminally charged while president, and the GOP has made clear that their ultimate test this year is to “let the voters decide.” That combination leaves no path for accountability. The House may very well continue its investigation of Trump’s various crimes starting today—perhaps by calling John Bolton—but Donald Trump knows he is, as Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported this week, borderline invincible.
The upshot is that Donald Trump can apparently do anything he wants to rig, influence, or invite foreign powers to tinker with the integrity of the election that will decide his fate. And he can do it all with the full powers of the presidency.
Trump has long been aware of his teflon nature. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he famously proclaimed in January 2016. Even then, he was pulling the wool over America’s eyes: Those comments came the same month Michael Cohen was—unknown to voters—busily at work trying to set up meetings with Vladimir Putin about the Trump Tower Moscow project.
More recently, Trump’s impeachment defense lawyers have argued that he could hand Alaska over to Vladimir Putin without repercussions outside of Election Day. “Assume Putin decides to ‘retake’ Alaska, the way he ‘retook’ Crimea,” Alan Dershowitz wrote in 2018, a year and a half before officially joining Trump’s legal team. “Assume further that a president allows him to do it, because he believed that Russia has a legitimate claim to ‘its’ original territory.” Even that wholesale reneging on the sovereignty of the United States would not, in Dershowitz’s views, constitute an impeachable offense.
Donald Trump today stands unleashed and uncontrolled, with 8,400 hours—half a million minutes and umpteen tweets—left in his first presidential term. The guardrails are gone. The adults have left the room.
Today, allies and adversaries around the world—from Ukraine to China to the UK—woke up knowing precisely how to ingratiate themselves with the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet: Investigate his rivals, sway the election in his favor. There’s no ambiguity.
There’s also every reason to believe Trump will court those actions. This is a man who stood on a campaign stage and openly asked Russia to help find Hillary Clinton’s emails. As Robert Mueller’s investigation made plain, they did just that. Three years later, Trump dialed up Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to ask directly for a similar “favor.”
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Then, when publicly confronted about his actions following alarm from within the State Department and the intelligence community, Donald Trump stood on the White House lawn and told reporters his hopes explicitly on camera: Not only Ukraine but China, too, should investigate the Bidens. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who spent two years living at the center of the Russia investigation, has said he wouldn't necessarily call the FBI if Russia showed up offering help again this year.
It's hard to say what should be more worrying to our democracy: our president unplugged or our adversaries unimpeded? Trump has made it all too clear that he continues to think the Zelensky call was “perfect.” If anything, the lesson he’s learned is that he should lean on more allies and adversaries to help him personally.
So what happens today? What happens tomorrow? What, weeks or months from now, will turn out to be the next “Zelensky call”?
America is completely unprepared for this era where the greatest threat to our democracy is the man leading it.
The one thing we know for sure: Today marks the beginning of a troubling new chapter.
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Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the co-author of THE DAWN OF THE CODE WAR: America's Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. His latest book, THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: An Oral History of 9/11, was published in September. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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