So since his acquittal Wednesday, despite mountains of evidence that he was guilty and admissions even from a Republican who voted for acquittal that Democrats had proved their case, he has not exactly displayed the humility or relief you’d expect from a guilty party who got a pass. Trump was acquitted — and boy, was he mad about it!
That was clear immediately after the Senate vote, when the White House put out a statement Wednesday evening with a call for revenge against the people who would hold Trump accountable. “Will there be no retribution?” the statement asked, in ominous biblical tones. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham went on Fox News the next morning to preview the president’s post-acquittal comments and reinforce his ludicrous claims that he was victimized: “I think he’s going to also talk about just how horribly he was treated and that maybe people should pay for that.” At the White House on Thursday, during what he said was a “celebration” of the acquittal, Trump called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a “horrible person,” said she and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) were “vicious and mean,” accused Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the only Republican to vote to remove Trump from office, of using “religion as a crutch” and said he doubted that Pelosi really prays. “It was all bulls---,” he summed up.
The answer to “will there be retribution?” is, of course, yes. There will be retribution, and it will be wide-ranging, an epic waste of taxpayer money, an incredible abuse of the executive branch and the resources that come with it, and contemptibly small-minded and petty.
We knew this even before Trump spoke because it’s exactly how Trump has always behaved. Since taking office, he has nihilistically tried to roll back everything Barack Obama accomplished, no matter how bipartisan, popular and effective, out of what appears to be sheer jealousy. He has directed misogyny and threats toward Hillary Clinton and gleefully encouraged his supporters to chant “lock her up” at rallies, years into his term, then deployed the chant to harass women who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. He has responded to criticism within his own ranks with public insults and attempts to destroy the careers of former employees. Rex Tillerson was “dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell.” Steve Bannon “cried when he got fired and begged for his job.” Anthony Scaramucci was a “highly unstable ‘nut job.’ ” Omarosa Manigault was “wacky” and “deranged,” “a lowlife.” Former national security adviser John Bolton, whose book reportedly says Trump talked about pressuring Ukrainemonths before his phone call with the country’s president, was “very publicly terminated.” Schiff “has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country,” Trump threatened last month.
And all that was before he was acquitted. On Thursday morning, he took shots at Pelosi and Romney — at a prayer breakfast, no less. Speaking directly after former American Enterprise Institute director Arthur Brooks urged people in the room to follow Jesus’ model and love their enemies, Trump started his remarks, “I don’t know if I agree with you.” (Not that the spiritual nature of an event has ever put a damper on his vindictive impulses. Speaking to an evangelical group in June, he suggested that the late senator John McCain might be in hell.) The administration acted earlier in the week to block Global Entry and other Trusted Traveler programs for residents of New York because of a new state law that limits federal immigration authorities’ access to driver’s license data; that will surely not be the first policy move that aims to punish the president’s political opponents, ostensibly for high-minded reasons. On Friday afternoon, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who had testified in the House impeachment investigation, was fired from the National Security Council and escorted from the White House complex — as was his brother, who hadn’t testified. That evening, Trump also fired another witness, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. (Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., thanked Schiff for “unearthing who all needed to be fired” after the investigation.)
This kind of vindictiveness is not new behavior for him, either. He’s done this sort of thing throughout his career. As a casino operator, he invented fake ethical scandals about people who could have exposed him as a terrible businessman. He built a hill in front of a cottage in Scotland whose owner had opposed a Trump golf course and hotel development — so the cottage’s yard flooded whenever it rained. These people did nothing wrong; their offense was refusing to pretend that Trump was as rich and successful as he said he was.
And that’s the core of it: He believes he’s entitled to his lies. Trump is not angry because he thinks he did not do what he’s been accused of; after all, he openly asked for foreign interference from China, on camera, on national television, while the impeachment inquiry was underway. He’s angry because he knows he did it, and he’s outraged that people he views as less powerful (you, me, everyone in Congress, Bolton, various journalists, select Hollywood celebrities) will not indulge or enable the illusion that he didn’t. He views the presidency as an authoritarian monarchy where everyone is obligated to compliment the naked emperor’s sartorial choices, too-long ties and all.
Deep down, this anger, this sore winning, must be rooted in shame — the kind of embarrassment a spoiled rich kid might have when he learns that Dad paid his opponent to let him win the tennis match and everyone knows it. Trump is where he is because other people have paid for him to win the match — the Republicans who acquitted him, the Russians who wanted him to win and tried to manipulate the election, the system that made him president even though he won fewer votes, the toadies in the administration who routinely tell him he’s smart and capable despite all evidence to the contrary. And we all know it: “Crooked Hillary” really did get more votes. The inauguration crowd was smaller than anyone expected. Democrats proved their case, and Trump deserved to be impeached and removed because he absolutely, without a doubt, did something wrong. He’s not a genius, he’s bad at this job, and he doesn’t want to do it. He would rather be enjoying executive time on the golf course. He’s angriest at people who’ve exposed these things about him — look how furious he is about the whistleblower whose report started the impeachment case — and he’s determined to make them pay. He cannot tolerate these insolent nobodies constantly reminding him of his failures and perfidies and litigating them on national television, the medium that matters most to him.
Obviously, that behavior will continue now that Republicans have demonstrated to him that there are no repercussions for malfeasance and that they’ll cover for whatever he does. Acquittal demonstrates that Trump can say anything he wants about a political opponent, no matter how demonstrably false, and weaponize the machinery of the U.S. government against that opponent without consequence. Of course he will do it again. He always does.
Unfortunately, there’s a willing audience for this sort of thing. When Romney voted to convict, it took only a few hours for Trump to tweet out an attack ad that essentially implied that Romney is some sort of one-man Democratic sleeper cell who’s trying to destroy the Republican Party from the inside. And Trump’s most loyal followers will inevitably buy it, because Keeping America Great requires total face-value acceptance of everything Trump says, no matter how ridiculous. When he says, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” you get the impression that part of him really wants to pull the trigger, just to demonstrate that he can. To show people who rejected him that he has power now, and he gets the last laugh.
He doesn’t, of course. History does. Truth and time will make clear the damage Trump has done to individuals and to our democracy. Future generations will not look kindly upon this administration, and — no matter how much Trump takes out his anger on the rest of us now — he won’t be around to make them pay for their enmity.
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Omarosa Manigault Newman and omitted her married name.]