So give Trump an open microphone in the East Room to talk about his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial? You get a campaign-style harangue about Trump’s allies, his enemies and the fates each group should expect.
What was remarkable about Trump’s riff Thursday afternoon was how unremarkable it was. It was the same patter you might have heard at dozens of other events over the course of Trump’s presidency. The Russia investigation? A witch hunt pushed by “liars and leakers” within the intelligence community. The impeachment itself? A triumph in the end, but one promulgated by “lousy politicians” like Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) (“a vicious, horrible person”) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (“a horrible person” who Trump assumes doesn’t pray). Trump is a pipeline of this stuff, simply waiting for access to a microphone or his Twitter account where he can open the spigot.
Recent history suggests that acquittals can prompt some demonstrated humility.
“I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events,” President Bill Clinton said after his acquittal following his 1999 impeachment trial, “and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and the American people.”
Some in Trump’s party seemed to think that Trump might be similarly chastened or, at least, come away from the situation a bit wiser.
“I believe that the president has learned from this case,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in an interview this week, explaining her decision to stand with Trump. “The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) offered a similar sentiment.
“I think that he knows now that, if he is trying to do certain things, whether it’s ferreting out corruption there, in Afghanistan, whatever it is,” she said, “he needs to go through the proper channels.”
Trump made clear Thursday that nothing had changed at all.
The impeachment? Just Democrats trying to take him down based on his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. House Democrats, he said, “took nothing. They took a phone call that was a totally appropriate call. I call it a perfect call because it was. And they brought me to the final stages of impeachment.”
“We went through hell, unfairly,” he said at another point. For about the 80th time, he declared himself innocent of any wrongdoing: “Did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”
The acquittal? Another president might have been chastened by the fact that, for the first time in history, a member of the president’s own party voted to convict on one of the two articles of impeachment. Democrats were joined by Republican Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) and two independents to offer the first bipartisan impeachment rebuke of a president ever.
No lesson from that, either.
“Other than one failed presidential candidate,” Trump said, “and I call that half a vote because he actually voted for us on the other one. But we had one failed presidential candidate. That’s the only half a vote we lost."
“So we had almost 53 to nothing,” he continued. “We had won 197 to nothing. And the only one that voted against was a guy that can’t stand the fact that he ran one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency.”
It’s worth noting how Trump describes both of the votes on impeachment: 53 to 0 in the Senate and 197 to 0 in the House, tallies that include only members of his own party. Democratic votes literally don’t count. (It’s not clear, by the way, why Romney’s vote against Trump should count as half a vote but his vote with Trump counts in full.)
Nothing about Trump’s comments Thursday suggested anything close to contrition. Nothing suggested that Trump had been pushed closer to how presidents have acted in the past; nothing indicated that Trump would approach his position with a new sense that boundaries existed.
Instead, speaking before allies in one of the White House’s ornate rooms, it seemed obvious that the only lesson Trump learned was to lean into how he’d been doing things all along. That, yet again, an effort to hold him accountable for his actions or keep him in check had failed and that, yet again, he was free to be even more himself.
He swore. He disparaged perceived opponents as “scum.” He made crude insinuations about two former FBI officials.
Even when he was lavishing praise on an ally things got weird. As he was offering his thanks to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Trump went into great detail about the morning Scalise was shot in Virginia, segueing into how much blood Scalise had lost and then a play-by-play of the Congressional Baseball Game in which Scalise subsequently played.
Perhaps there will be some quiet manifestation of new behavior by the president. Perhaps the outside bluster will be in contrast to a more demure, engaged chief executive behind closed doors. This is the eternal hope of Trump’s more distant allies: that perhaps Trump will become the president they’d like to see in at least some sense and that maybe this will be the trigger that prompts him to do so.
By now we can assume that the public-facing Trump, the one talking into the microphone or into the “What’s happening?” box at Twitter.com, is the same Trump who’s talking with foreign officials and aides out of the public eye. The impeachment investigation made that clear, too, with stories like the call with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in which Trump loudly asked about the investigations he wanted and then was assured by Sondland that Trump could at least tell Kim Kardashian that he’d tried to get her friend out of legal trouble in Sweden.
The ones who should certainly have learned a lesson about Trump’s behavior by now are the rest of us. People like Joni Ernst and Susan Collins.
To her credit, Collins did, in a subsequent interview, indicate that perhaps her confidence in a newly changed Trump might have been misplaced.
“Well, I may not be correct on that,” Collins said.