The future president offered this existential take on impeachment during a 2014 call-in to “Fox & Friends,” in reference to then-President Barack Obama. But his comments were pure Trumpian projection, and prophetic of a dilemma he himself would face almost exactly five years later.
On Wednesday, President Trump became only the third president in the nation’s history to be impeached. The House vote also marked one of the rare moments in Trump’s life where he has faced concrete accountability for his actions.
Yes, he is expected to be acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate, if and when the House sends the charges over to the other chamber. Sure, 46 percent of people still oppose Trump’s impeachment — statistically similar to the 49 percent who support such action, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll released Tuesday. And of course, he may yet win reelection in 2020.
But for a man consumed with his legacy and legitimacy, the 230-to-197 vote on abuse of power and the 229-to-198 vote on obstruction of Congress are stains that undermine both.
It is impeachment, and it is for life. It’s historical and it’s constitutional. It’s not something Trump can squirm his way out of, or cut a hush-money check to make disappear.
“I do think that the reason the president is taking impeachment particularly hard is because he has absolutely no control over the process, at least not in the way he understands,” Jeff Flake, a former Republican senator from Arizona who was a frequent Trump critic, said in a text message. “Bullying doesn’t work in this situation.”
Trump can spin and obfuscate all he wants — he can dismiss it from the rally stage and decry it from his Twitter feed — but the scarlet “I” of impeachment will be, as Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said, “permanent.”
“No president wants to be impeached,” Lieu said in his speech on the House floor Wednesday before the final vote. “Whether Donald Trump leaves in one month, one year or five years, this impeachment is permanent, it will follow him for the rest of his life, and it will be included in all future history books. And the people will know why we impeached.”
Early in his 2016 presidential campaign, during a stop in Sioux City, Iowa, Trump made the now-infamous quip that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”
“It’s, like, incredible,” he mused.
And in many ways, it was.
Even true low moments in his presidency, such as when he said “both sides” were to blame for the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville that left a woman dead, seemed largely devoid of tangible consequence. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser at the time, expressed his “distress” at Trump’s comments in an interview with the Financial Times, but did not resign; he saved that for later, over trade disagreements with the president.
On Wednesday night, Katy Tur, an MSNBC anchor who covered Trump’s campaign, tweeted out the myriad ways Trump has long evaded accountability — a riff she articulated again on her show the following day.
“This is the first time — if you don’t count 2018 and the election there — Donald Trump has suffered political consequences for his actions,” she said. “He faced none during the campaign. Not for the Muslim ban. Not for The Access Hollywood tape, and the dozens — dozens of women, more than a dozen women — who have accused him of sexual harassment or abuse. Not for calling Mexicans crossing the border ‘rapists.’ Not for calling on Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. Not for calling his political opponent to be locked up. Not for denigrating a Gold Star family.”
Tur’s list continued, before she turned her attention to his time in office, ticking through Trump’s other controversies — separating families and children at the border, profiting off the presidency, undermining the U.S. intelligence community, revealing classified intelligence to the Russians in the Oval Office.
“Until now,” she concluded.
Even Trump, who has approached what he calls the “very ugly word” of impeachment by blaming just about everyone but himself, seems to understand the severity of his historical sentence. His tweets and pronouncements and public statements have the feel of someone trying to scream away the one thing that can’t be undone.
“I don’t feel like I’m being impeached because it’s a hoax, it’s a setup,” Trump said in the Oval Office on Thursday, responding to a question about what it feels like to be impeached. “It’s a horrible thing they did.”
He says the Democrats are trying to nullify the 2016 election results with impeachment, even as he tries to nullify their impeachment vote by claiming it ain’t so.
At his two-hour rally in Battle Creek, Mich. on Wednesday night, which presented a surreal split screen with the vote unfolding in the Capitol 600 miles away, Trump cycled through outraged indignation to claims that he was barely even being impeached.
“There’s no crime! There’s no crime, right!” he argued. “They call it impeachment light.”
In a different moment, he acknowledged the day’s events before playing down their import. “You get impeached,” Trump said. “That may be a record that will last forever, but you know what they have done? They’ve cheapened the impeachment process.”
The sentiments echoed comments Trump made Tuesday in the Oval Office. There, asked whether he bore any responsibility for his impending impeachment, the president replied, “Zero, to put it mildly.”
Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal,” and has since become a sharp critic of the president, said Trump clearly is upset about his asterisk now forever affixed to his presidency.
“It’s evident that he is suffering in whatever way he does, manifested by the hundreds of tweets and the anger and the two-hour diatribe,” he said, referring to Wednesday night’s rally.
Schwartz likened the president to “a balloon with a small pinprick hole” that is constantly “leaking self-worth.”
“That’s his life work, blowing that balloon back,” Schwartz continued. “It is a grim survival mentality. Impeachment is simply the most extreme version of something he must blow back against.”
Scott Clement and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.