Republicans had a plan for the 2020 election. The plan was to end President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, sidestep questions about his misconduct, and talk instead about the economy. But on Thursday, Trump shattered that plan. In remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast and the White House, he flaunted his rage and impunity. He’s making 2020 a referendum on exactly what Republicans don’t want to talk about: his unpunished corruption.
The last president who was impeached, Bill Clinton, tried to defuse public anger by acknowledging his sins. He called his behavior with Monica Lewinsky “wrong” and “a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.” He expressed “shame,” “regret,” and “remorse.” “I must take complete responsibility for all my actions,” said Clinton. “Accountability demands consequences, and I’m prepared to accept them.”
Trump offers no such contrition. At the prayer breakfast, he accused his enemies of impeaching him “for nothing.” Hours later, before an audience of Republican lawmakers in the East Room of the White House, he declared “a day of celebration” over his acquittal. He called his extortion of Ukraine “totally appropriate” and insisted he had done “nothing wrong.” In fact, he claimed he had a “legal obligation” to press Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. “So that’s the story,” Trump concluded. “We’ve been treated very unfairly.”
Clinton, in speeches leading up to his trial and acquittal, faced unwelcome facts. “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate,” he confessed in a televised address. “I misled people, including even my wife.” Later, he acknowledged that he had “misled the country [and] the Congress.”
Trump confessed nothing. Three times in his rant at the White House, he dismissed the Ukraine scandal as a “hoax.” He called the Russia investigation “bullshit” and a “witch hunt.” He falsely claimed that investigators looking into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign “knew in the first two days … that we were totally innocent, but they kept [the investigation] going.” He slandered former FBI Director James Comey, alleging that Comey “announced that he was leaking [and] lying” and that “we caught him in the act.” And he lied about Christopher Steele’s dossier on Trump-Russia connections, claiming that Steele “admits that it’s a fake.”
Clinton hated the investigation that led to his impeachment. But at times, he at least made a show of taking it to heart. “While it’s hard to hear yourself called deceitful and manipulative,” he said, “I remember Ben Franklin’s admonition that our critics are our friends, for they do show us our faults.”
Trump, conceding nothing, rages at his investigators. At the White House, he called them “dirty cops,” “lowlifes,” “very evil and sick people,” and “the crookedest, most dishonest, dirtiest people I’ve ever seen.” He called Comey a “sleazebag” and denounced former leaders of the FBI as “scum.” He mocked Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Iraq war veteran and National Security Council aide who told Congress about Trump’s extortion of Ukraine. And he bragged that by firing Comey, he had torpedoed the Russia investigation. “Had I not fired James Comey,” said Trump, “it’s possible I wouldn’t even be standing here.”
Clinton, after his impeachment, called for unity. “We must get rid of the poisonous venom of excessive partisanship, obsessive animosity, and uncontrolled anger,” he pleaded. A week before his acquittal, Clinton spoke at the 1999 prayer breakfast, affirming that “when we come here, we set party aside.” He warned that “an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind” and that those who seek peace must “let go and walk away, like Christ, not from apparent, but from genuine grievances.” After his acquittal, Clinton spoke at the White House. “This must be a time of reconciliation,” he declared.
Trump shows no interest in reconciliation. At Thursday’s prayer breakfast, he fumed that he had “been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people.” At the White House, he hurled venom. “Democrats are lousy politicians,” he declared. “They are vicious and mean. Vicious. These people are vicious. Adam Schiff is a vicious, horrible person. Nancy Pelosi is a horrible person.” He denounced Sen. Mitt Romney—the sole Republican who had voted to convict him—as “a guy who can’t stand the fact that he ran one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency.” The president hinted at revenge, complaining that Hillary Clinton hadn’t been prosecuted and that if investigators had targeted President Barack Obama the way they targeted Trump, “a lot of people”—the investigators themselves—“would have been in jail for a long time.”
Bill Clinton, for all his failings, took religion seriously. At the 1999 prayer breakfast, he prayed to be “purged of the temptation to pretend that our willfulness is somehow equal to God’s will.” Trump, in Thursday’s speech to the prayer breakfast, shattered that spirit of humility. He praised “Republican politicians” for acquitting him, and he accused Romney of faking religious conscience. “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” he said of Romney’s vote against him. Then, in a slap at Pelosi, Trump continued, “Nor do I like people who say ‘I pray for you’ when they know that that’s not so.” Later, at the White House, Trump accused Romney of using “religion as a crutch.” He said of Pelosi: “I doubt she prays at all.”
Trump’s abuse of the prayer breakfast was a desecration, and his speech at the White House was some of the vilest slander ever spoken by a president. But congressional Republicans, ignoring their own lectures about moving on from impeachment, lapped up his East Room tirade. They laughed as he lied about Comey, insulted Romney, mocked Schiff, belittled special counsel Robert Mueller, attacked Pelosi’s faith, and dismissed the Russia investigation as “bullshit.” They applauded his smears and fabrications.
That’s the defining scene of Trump’s impeachment. The acquittal isn’t a verdict on Trump. It’s a verdict on the Republican Party. The president of the United States spurned humility, mocked faith, spouted lies, bragged about sacking his investigators, and threatened his political opponents. And the leadership of his party reveled in it. Trump’s acquittal isn’t about a technical disagreement. It’s about nihilism and impunity. The Senate didn’t settle that fight. But the election can.