There’s no playbook for how to handle the aftermath of an impeachment—it’s only happened three times—but as I watched President Donald Trump’s post-acquittal statement today, I was inspired to review what Bill Clinton said after the Senate acquitted him in 1999.
The sometimes logorrheic Clinton was short and crisp:
Now that the Senate has fulfilled its constitutional responsibility, bringing this process to a conclusion, I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people.
I also am humbled and very grateful for the support and the prayers I have received from millions of Americans over this past year.
Now I ask all Americans, and I hope all Americans, here in Washington and throughout our land, will rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future together.
This can be and this must be a time of reconciliation and renewal for America. Thank you very much.
As he finished, a reporter asked him whether “in [his] heart,” he could forgive and forget. “I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it,” Clinton said.
“Do you feel vindicated?” another reporter asked. Clinton did not reply.
Trump’s statement, almost exactly 21 years later, was the complete opposite. The president was rambling and improvisational, speaking for more than an hour. He was jubilant and celebratory, even showing a facsimile of affection—not an emotion typically associated with him—toward his allies.
But toward his enemies, a group that included not only Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, but also former FBI Director James Comey and current Republican Senator Mitt Romney, he was vindictive. The charges were “bullshit.” His adversaries were evil, vicious, corrupt “dirty cops.”
Trump didn’t take any questions, but there was no need to ask whether he felt vindicated. Obviously, he did. Despite the insistence of some Republican senators that Trump had learned that he couldn’t simply coerce foreign election interference, he again insisted over and over that his behavior had been “perfect.” Nor, moreover, was there any need to ask whether he could forgive and forget. That is clearly out of the question.
Trump has shown throughout his short career in politics that he knows how to win, even when the odds are against him, as they were in the 2016 GOP primary and that year’s general election. He has also shown that he has no idea how to take the win and move on. He spent much of the 2016 general-election campaign continuing to dwell on his upset primary victories over candidates favored by the establishment. He has never stopped dwelling on the 2016 election. And with a chance to put impeachment behind him and capitalize on momentum, he chose confrontation instead.
This is no great surprise, just as it is no surprise that the president delivered a new barrage of lies and conspiracy theories in his statement—even though his weakness for bogus claims helped get him impeached. Trump has never previously expressed grace in any way, so it’d be surprising if he were gracious now. If you keep winning, why change your style? Yet the unorthodox response is nonetheless worth noting, the latest example of my colleague James Fallows’s description of so much of the Trump phenomenon as shocking but not surprising.
What is not clear is what cost, if any, the vindictiveness might have. Trump is flying high at the moment, on the back of his best week as president. Perhaps he’s about to cruise toward reelection in November, when he has many advantages. But dangers abound. Impeachment remains popular with the American electorate overall; majorities say that he abused his power.
Beyond that, declining to move on narrows what Trump can accomplish, just as it has limited his accomplishments thus far. (The president once again claimed implausibly and falsely that he has accomplished more than any other president in his first term.) There are some things that Trump can do without the Democratic House of Representatives. The most prominent is appointing federal judges, and his success there helped keep Republican senators almost completely unified around him, save Romney. To pass legislation, however, he needs both houses of Congress.
Like Trump, House Democrats face a post-impeachment dilemma. Do they try to get back to legislating and seek common ground with the White House and the Senate? Or do they reopen investigations, maintain their pressure on Trump, and perhaps subpoena John Bolton to testify?
Trump could try to force their hand, getting them to support things that would help him win reelection. It’s no accident that Clinton’s second term is seen as a great success, despite facing Republican control of Congress and his own impeachment. Trump gestured weakly at bipartisanship near the end of his statement, saying, “What we can do working with both parties in Congress, this would be unbelievable.” Tellingly, however, this was nestled inside yet another broadside at Pelosi.
The president cited prescription-drug prices and infrastructure as places for agreement. It’s hard to imagine Democrats opposing a major infrastructure bill. After all, majorities of Democrats in both houses voted for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Trump’s NAFTA replacement, even in the middle of impeachment—handing him a major and rare win. Yet Trump’s statement today sent a message that he has little serious interest in working together. He’d rather fight them until November. That means he’s more likely to receive animosity in return. (He predicted that he’d be impeached again, which isn’t a terrible gamble.)
At one point during his address, Trump recalled another Republican president. “A lot of people forget Abe Lincoln,” he said, apropos of nothing. (This is not true.) The contrast between the two commanders in chief is especially telling today. In 1865, in the middle of the Civil War and after a nasty election, Lincoln gave a speech that is renowned for its magnanimity, looking forward to rebuilding after the strife of a rebellion. Trump reversed Lincoln’s famous formulation, instead promising malice toward all, and charity for none.