Updated on February 5 at 2:16 p.m.
It’s been a pretty good week for Donald Trump, and it’s only Wednesday. In fact, it’s hard to think of a better week in the Trump administration. That’s partly a testament to what a chaotic mess the presidency has been. There are plenty of contenders for worst week. Best? That’s a tougher order.
But the White House has gotten encouraging news this week on all fronts: Trump’s Republican allies in Congress are set to acquit him today in his impeachment trial, affirming that he can get away with nearly anything as long as he delivers on policies they like. The Democratic Party is in disarray. And voters have rewarded him with some of the highest approval ratings since the early months of his term in office. If this is the start of a clearer period for Trump, it could hardly happen at a luckier time for him, with the 2020 election starting in earnest. But past experience also shows that Trump struggles to capitalize on positive moments, and has a tendency to shoot himself in the foot.
The good news began late Thursday, when Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee announced that he wouldn’t vote to call witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial. The next day, so did Senator Lisa Murkowski. This sealed the speedy (though not as speedy as Trump had desired) end of the impeachment trial.
The great week started in earnest on Monday, with the Iowa caucus. On the Republican side, Trump captured a Robert Mugabe–esque 97.1 percent of the vote, in part thanks to his success in enrapturing the Republican Party and crowding out would-be challengers.
The news on the Democratic side was even better for Trump. Thanks to an absolute debacle of mismanagement by the Iowa Democratic Party, the results of the caucus were not released Monday night. Full results are still not in. The fiasco allowed conspiracy theories to run rampant—with the active encouragement of the president’s sons—spreading divisions among Democrats and fostering just the sorts of doubts about the electoral system that Trump has long sought to foment. The result also encouraged Michael Bloomberg to amp up his already large spending, a late Groundhog Day that guarantees the Democrats will see six weeks (or more) of additional chaos and division.
Last night, Trump delivered his State of the Union address. The event was supremely weird, and more spectacle than speech. But based on the president’s Twitter feed this morning, he is pleased with the way it was received.
All that was just the warm-up for the climax, or anticlimax, of the week: the Senate vote on impeachment. Only one Republican, Mitt Romney of Utah, will vote to convict Trump on either count. That means Senate will not reach a majority to convict—much less reach the 67 votes required to remove Trump from office on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
This represents both a political and practical triumph for Trump. The president has been infuriated by impeachment and eager for it to end. Democrats maintain that the Senate acquittal is tainted because the trial included no witnesses, and it is true that majorities of Americans in polls both supported calling witnesses and believe that Trump abused his power. But there is only so much spinning to be done: Survival isn’t much of a victory, but it is a victory nonetheless.
The practical implications are potentially huge. The pending end of the trial has inspired predictions that Trump will emerge completely unshackled, able to do whatever he wants—a warning that Democratic impeachment managers also sounded as the trial wrapped. On the other side, Republican senators have insisted that Trump is chastened and will straighten out his act. Both arguments have flaws.
“I believe that the president has learned from this case,” Senator Susan Collins said in announcing plans to vote to acquit Trump. “The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.” Other senators, including Joni Ernst and Lamar Alexander, have advanced similar claims.
Trump himself quickly and forcefully showed how gullible or disingenuous this is. Asked about Collins’s comments, he again said that he did nothing wrong, and reiterated that his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect.”
The acquittal sets a dangerous precedent, ratifying Trump’s ability to coerce foreign countries into interfering in elections. And the president has shown that once a restraint is removed, he quickly tests the new boundaries. It’s probably no accident that the Zelensky call came one day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified to Congress, making clear that Trump wouldn’t face serious repercussions from that probe. Trump even cited Mueller’s flat performance on the call.
The longer Trump has been in office, the more emboldened he has been to pursue his pet issues, and the more Republican Party officeholders have become unified behind him. As I reported last week, the time of impeachment has been a quietly productive one for the Trump administration, as the president moves forward on a range of policy questions. No matter how distracted Trump is by impeachment or campaigning or phantom corruption investigations abroad, he has a hive of worker bees buzzing away each day.
Trump has not been completely unleashed, though. Even as they fought the specific articles of impeachment as overly vague, the president’s own lawyers had to acknowledge that Trump could be impeached for violating criminal laws. Trump has also—so far—respected decisions from the courts, even as he has railed against them and rhetorically undermined the judicial system.
So this week finds Trump triumphant and Democrats disconsolate. Yet the president has had politically successful moments before, only to let them slip away. His approval rating has spiked, then subsided back into the middle of the narrow, poor range where it consistently sits. One problem is that Trump remains bad at putting his plans into action. He has neither the attention span nor the bureaucratic chops to be truly effective, still faces a hostile Democratic House, and has been repeatedly blocked by federal judges.
Furthermore, the circumstances of acquittal may encourage Trump to do things that aren’t especially politically popular. Non-Trumpy senators who say they will vote to acquit, such as Alexander, have cited the president’s success on conservative priorities such as appointing judges. Senators are also forced into line by fear of a Trump-loving conservative base. These two vectors mean that Trump’s incentive is to play to these two audiences, not to reach out to independents or persuadable Democrats. The president’s ability to break out of these traps may be the difference between this week being a turning point and it being simply another crazy moment in a bizarre presidency.