George T. Conway III is a lawyer and is also an adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC.
With essentially no pretense about why he was doing it, the president brazenly retaliated Friday against two witnesses who gave truthful testimony in the House’s impeachment inquiry. He fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. And he also fired a third man, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, merely for being the brother of the first. Trump essentially admitted his retaliatory motive on Saturday, when he tweeted that he sacked Vindman in part for having “reported contents of my ‘perfect’ calls incorrectly.”
If this were a criminal investigation, and Alexander Vindman and Sondland had given their testimony to a grand jury, this Friday Night Massacre could have been a crime. At the very least, it ought to be impeachable: If Richard M. Nixon was to be impeached for authorizing hush money for witnesses, and Trump himself was actually impeached for directing defiance of House subpoenas, then there should be no doubt that punishing witnesses for complying with subpoenas and giving truthful testimony about presidential misconduct should make for a high crime or misdemeanor as well.
But it’s really not about this one day, or this one egregious act. It’s about who Trump is, who he always was and who he always will be. It’s about the complete mismatch between the man and the office he holds.
It’s about the fact that the presidency is a fiduciary position, the ultimate public trust. And that Trump’s narcissism won’t allow him to put anyone else’s interests above his own, including the nation’s. Indeed, he can’t even distinguish between his interests and the nation’s — and doesn’t need to, according to his lawyers and now the judgment of the Senate. For Trump, it’s always L’état, c’est Trump, as many observers have trenchantly put it.
Or, as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said during the impeachment trial, “you know you can’t trust this president to do what is right for this country. You can trust he will do what is right for Donald Trump. He will do it now. He has done it before.”
And he will do it again. He did do it again by firing the Vindmans and Sondland. He’s telling us he will do it again. And no one can seriously doubt it, even those who voted to acquit. The ever-hopeful Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who said last week that she was voting to acquit partly because she thought Trump had learned “a pretty big lesson” from being impeached, quickly backtracked to say she was merely being “aspirational.” Such a lofty aspiration — that the president refrain from committing an impeachable offense.
“Fantastical” would better describe it, actually. On Thursday, Trump portrayed himself as the innocent victim: “Went through hell, unfairly. Did nothing wrong. Did nothing wrong.” “We were treated unbelievably unfairly.” “It was all bullshit.” It was “a very good phone call.” "I call it a ‘perfect call’ because it was.”
On the flip side, it was Trump’s opponents who did wrong. He called his impeachment “evil,” “corrupt,” “phony, rotten,” brought about by “dirty cops,” “leakers and liars" and, in general, “very evil and sick people” who were “vicious as hell.” “They made up facts.” “It was a disgrace.”
So just as we had Nixon’s enemies list, so we have had three years of Trump’s use of presidential power for vindictive ends. Long before the Vindmans and Sondland, the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director. Trump’s alleged directive to the Pentagon to “screw Amazon,” whose chief executive owns this newspaper, which, frankly, ought by itself to have been an impeachable offense. So, too, his threats against Google, Facebook and Twitter. His obvious punishment of Puerto Rico for its politicians’ criticisms of him. His attacks on a British ambassador who dared assess him critically. The Ukraine scandal itself, indeed, was partially an effort to attain vengeance for wrongs — Ukrainian “interference” — Trump imagines were done to him in 2016. He’ll use whatever means he has at his presidential disposal to redress his bottomless pit of grievances.
And he’ll only get worse. Narcissistic leaders such as Trump always do. As we’ve now seen, his rage leads to retribution and misconduct, which beget more criticism, and more investigation, and even more rage, retribution and misconduct. Over and over again.
So America beware: The state is Trump, and he’s very, very angry. We might, indeed, have to do it again.
The latest commentary on the Trump impeachment
Looking for more Trump impeachment coverage following the president’s acquittal?
See Dana Milbank’s Impeachment Diary: Find all the entries in our columnist’s feature.
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Read the most recent take from the Editorial Board: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.
The House impeachment managers weigh in in an op-ed: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.
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