WASHINGTON (AP) — With the final gavel banging down Wednesday on impeachment, President Donald Trump barreled ahead in his reelection fight with a united Republican Party behind him, and emboldened by reassuring poll numbers and chaos in the Democratic race to replace him.
Republican senators voted largely in lockstep to acquit Trump, relying on a multitude of rationales for keeping him in office: He’s guilty, but his conduct wasn’t impeachable; his July telephone conversation with Ukraine’s president was a “perfect call”; there’s an election in 10 months and it’s up to voters to determine his fate.
For Trump, there was one overriding message to draw from his acquittal: Even at a time of maximum political peril, it’s his Republican Party.
One day after Trump avoided talk of impeachment in his State of the Union address and argued that he had delivered on his 2016 campaign promises, the president already was moving to use impeachment as a 2020 rallying cry.
Trump tweeted after the vote that he would mark his acquittal with a statement at noon Thursday to “discuss our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!” And the president’s supporters were being invited to join him in an East Room victory lap.
The president and his allies sent giddy tweets needling his accusers and Democrats. In his first message once the trial closed, Trump posted an animated video using a Time magazine cover to suggest he would remain in office “4EVA.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., released a video of him tearing up the impeachment articles. And White House social media director Dan Scavino tweeted an animated GIF of Trump dancing.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House aide, said in a post: “This factional fever and incoherent, ill-conceived process has finally ended and the President has rightfully been acquitted. It is time for our Country to move forward. Together.”
The nation’s first presidential nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses, handed more good news to Trump. A tabulating mishap threw the Democrats into chaos, depriving any candidate of a clear victory and allowing Trump to paint the Democrats as incompetent and corrupt.
Trump’s tenuous relationship with the GOP establishment has been a consistent theme of his political life in recent years, and he has repeatedly put the party’s values to the test. Still, most Republicans have grudgingly stuck with him, through the revelations of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he was heard boasting about sexually assaulting women, and Charlottesville, where he defended white supremacists during a racial clash in the Virginia college town, as well as Helsinki, where he sided with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies about Moscow’s 2016 election interference.
Now, they are giving him the victory he’s been waiting for and lashing their fates to his like never before.
Throughout the impeachment process, Trump drew satisfaction as Republican senators, many of whom opposed his long-shot candidacy and still dismiss him in private, overwhelmingly defended him and defied convention, tradition and public opinion polling in the process.
Scott Jennings, a longtime Republican political adviser, said the Senate impeachment trial strengthened Trump’s hand within the party, especially with his core conservative base.
“It actually endears him to his most committed supporters. If Trump is a disrupter, it makes all the sense in the world for the insiders to try to get rid of him. It hands Trump a real messaging point,” Jennings said. “I see no weaknesses in Trump now.”
While Trump is among the least popular presidents in modern history, he has nonetheless maintained wide support among Republicans, with 83% approving of his job performance in a January poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center.
Taking their cues from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom Trump has a respectful, if not particularly close, relationship, GOP senators fell in line to block new witnesses and documents in the trial. The final vote Wednesday was no different: Only one Republican, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a longtime Trump critic, voted for removal.
Romney seemed to anticipate retribution, telling Fox News, “I have broad enough shoulders to bear the consequences.”
With the impeachment trial behind him, Trump loses a reliable foil. But he will soon gain a replacement with a general election foe.
“Donald Trump is in the best political position of his presidency, in part due to his opponents’ miscalculations,” said GOP consultant Terry Sullivan. “He’s at his best when he has a clear opponent, because he’s terrible at playing defense but his political offensive game is second to none. I predict the next nine months will only get better for him as it becomes a two-person race that allows him to define it as a choice between he and his opponent.”
The president told confidants during the trial that he was impressed not just by the robust defense offered by his lawyers, but by the TV interviews offered by GOP senators outside the chamber, according to three White House aides and Republicans close to the West Wing were not authorized to discuss private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
He crowed to advisers about the loyalty being shown to him and predicted the show of force bodes well for party enthusiasm in November’s election, the people said.
“I have never seen the Republican Party as Strong and as Unified as it is right now. Thank you!” Trump tweeted during the trial.
Trump has benefited from a new class of Republicans in Congress who have proved to be more partisan than their predecessors. Party members also know that Trump rains retribution on those who cross him. For all of Trump’s talk about how Democrats stick together, he’s got the Republicans in his fist.
“We’ve never had a president, as I said, who’s as vindictive and nasty as this one and he strikes fear in the hearts of a lot of people,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week.
Trump’s sky-high approval ratings within his own party acted as a deterrent that kept nearly all Republicans from breaking ranks. The fear was palpable among GOP senators worried not just about being the target of an angry tweet but about a Trump-backed primary challenger or a revolt among strong Republican supporters.
Still personally stung by impeachment, Trump is betting that he can sell his acquittal to the American people as a vindication, that he can activate his supporters and mollify even his skeptics in the center. Democrats are left with the more challenging task of explaining the details of the Ukraine case to the American people, and the White House believes Trump’s less complicated message will prevail.
Reporting by Jonathan Lemire and Zeke Miller
Image: President Donald Trump arrives to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP)