A little over two weeks ago, multiple Republican senators publicly reprimanded their own party’s president for asking a foreign country to investigate one of their domestic political rivals. One of these lawmakers — former GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney — voted to remove Donald Trump from office, on the grounds that “corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.” Never before in American history had a senator voted to evict a co-partisan from the White House.
Trump then threw a party to celebrate his “full exoneration.”
The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer deftly summarizes the White House’s ensuing actions:
After calling the accusation that Trump collaborated with foreign powers in an effort to swing American elections a “hoax,” [Attorney General William] Barr set up an official channel for the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to funnel foreign dirt on Trump’s rivals to the Justice Department. After falsely claiming that Joe Biden had demanded the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect his son, Trump has engaged in the exact act he accused Biden of engaging in, by attempting to shield his henchman Roger Stone from legal consequences for breaking the law on his behalf, leading to the resignation of the prosecutors working on the case. Barr also has handpicked advisers “reviewing” the case against Michael Flynn, the former Trump national-security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia officials during the transition. The day of Trump’s acquittal, the Justice Department announced that Barr would have to approve any investigations into the 2020 presidential candidates, giving him the authority to shut down criminal investigations of the president’s associates or approve inquiries into his rivals. Speaking to reporters, Trump claimed the “absolute right” to determine who is and who is not prosecuted by the Justice Department …
Trump has also engaged in a purge of officials who testified truthfully — some of them only somewhat truthfully — in the impeachment hearings. Trump fired his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who confirmed that Trump had conditioned aid to Ukraine on procuring an announcement that Biden’s son Hunter was under investigation by Ukrainian authorities. He removed not only Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman but also his twin brother, Yevgeny Vindman, from the White House staff after Vindman’s truthful testimony that the president sought to coerce Ukraine into falsely implicating the Bidens. Trump mocked Alexander Vindman on Twitter after his ouster by putting his rank in scare quotes, a marked contrast to his effusive praise for war criminals. Similarly, the former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie Liu, had her nomination for a top position in the Treasury Department withdrawn after Trump publicly attacked prosecutors in her office for their handling of the Stone case.
In the 48 hours since Serwer’s piece was published, the list of Trump’s publicly known, post-impeachment assaults on the rule of law has grown longer.
On Wednesday, Trump announced that he would be replacing acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, with his current U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell — a man with an unimpeachable record of rationalizing Trump’s misconduct, but scant experience in intelligence gathering or analysis. The president then named Kash Patel, a former adviser to Republican congressman Devin Nunes — and chief author of the wildly mendacious “Nunes memo,” which challenged the “legitimacy and legality” of the FBI’s investigation into Donald Trump’s campaign — as Grenell’s new senior adviser. The appointment of underqualified administration toadies to such powerful offices would be alarming in and of itself. But on Friday, the Washington Post revealed that Grenell’s ascension was even more ominous than it first appeared:
A senior U.S. intelligence official told lawmakers last week that Russia wants to see President Trump reelected, viewing his administration as more favorable to the Kremlin’s interests, according to people who were briefed on the comments.
After learning of that analysis, which was provided to House lawmakers in a classified hearing, Trump grew angry at his acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, in the Oval Office, seeing Maguire and his staff as disloyal for speaking to Congress about Russia’s perceived preference. The intelligence official’s analysis and Trump’s furious response ruined Maguire’s chances of becoming the permanent intelligence chief, according to people familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
Maguire allowed a deputy to accurately brief Congress on Russia’s views of the 2020 election. For this offense, he was fired and replaced with a Trump loyalist. And if the administration gets its way, every other civil servant who privileges their official duties over the president’s personal interests will soon suffer the same fate.
As Axios reports:
Johnny McEntee called in White House liaisons from Cabinet agencies for an introductory meeting Thursday, in which he asked them to identify political appointees across the U.S. government who are believed to be anti-Trump, three sources familiar with the meeting tell Axios.
Behind the scenes: McEntee, a 29-year-old former body man to Trump who was fired in 2018 by then–Chief of Staff John Kelly but recently rehired — and promoted to head the presidential personnel office — foreshadowed sweeping personnel changes across government.
• But McEntee suggested the most dramatic changes may have to wait until after the November election.
• Trump has empowered McEntee — whom he considers an absolute loyalist — to purge the “bad people” and “deep state.”
• McEntee told staff that those identified as anti-Trump will no longer get promotions by shifting them around agencies.
To review: At the beginning of this month, multiple Republican members of Congress publicly affirmed that their own party’s president had abused the powers of his office. The president proceeded to escalate his war on the rule of law to unprecedented heights by purging his administration of officials who had dared to respect Congress’ subpoena power, intervening in ongoing Justice Department cases to aid his personal allies, undermining congressional oversight of Russian election interference, and asserting an “absolute right” to sic federal law enforcement on anyone he chooses.
In the weeks after the Senate acquitted Trump in his impeachment trial (amid bipartisan support for his removal), the president’s approval rating in Gallup’s poll hit an all-time high of 49 percent — 10 points above where it was in October of last year.
It is true that few other pollsters have found Trump gaining quite this much ground. But almost all have shown the same trend. The RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average puts Trump’s approval at 46 percent — the highest it’s been since February 2017. FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of polls is less favorable to the president, but still has him at 44.2 percent approval, well above his average over the course of his presidency.
Some observers have suggested that Trump’s gains may be illusory. In the wake of high-profile news events that encourage one partisan camp and discourage the other, polls can be thrown off by “nonresponse bias.” Which is to say, Trump’s acquittal may have made Republican voters more eager to talk to pollsters about politics, and Democratic ones more quick to hang up on them, thereby skewing the surveys’ samples in a pro-GOP direction.
But we’re a couple weeks past Trump’s acquittal now. And his rise in the polls has been slow, steady, and correlated with the American public’s ever-rosier assessments of the economy and their own material fortunes. Recent surveys have shown consumer confidence hitting postrecession highs, Americans expressing “record-high optimism” about their own personal finances (59 percent say they are better off now than last year, while 74 percent expect to be better off next year than they are now), and 55 percent of Americans approving of Trump’s stewardship of the economy.
No matter how one slices the data, Trump’s approval rating is now higher than Barack Obama’s was in November 2011. It is true that Trump’s disapproval rating has been persistently higher than Obama’s ever was, and thus, that his ceiling of support is almost certainly lower than his predecessor’s. But it is also true that Trump enjoys a larger structural advantage in the Electoral College than Obama did. If the president wins 3 percent fewer votes than his Democratic opponent in November, he will have an excellent shot of remaining in office (especially if Quinnipiac’s latest survey of Wisconsin is remotely accurate).
Taken together, Trump’s escalating authoritarianism and rising popularity make the present moment the most harrowing of his presidency thus far. With the anticlimactic end of the Mueller investigation, Trump learned that federal law enforcement cannot (or will not) hold him accountable for abuses of power. With his Senate acquittal, he secured confirmation that Congress won’t either. Now, the small but electorally decisive fragment of the American electorate that isn’t tightly wedded to either party is signaling to Trump that it won’t necessarily penalize his lawlessness either.
For much of the past five months, indisputable evidence of Trump’s illicit efforts to coerce a foreign power into aiding his reelection campaign have dominated the headlines. That Trump is willing to abuse the powers of his office to persecute his political rivals has been publicly affirmed by a wide variety of his own administration’s officials, and his own party’s members of Congress. And yet, his odds for reelection have steadily risen all the same. For America’s (largely) socially atomized and civically disengaged swing voters, Trump’s authoritarian power grabs and the criticism they inspire ostensibly register as little more than unusually heated partisan squabbles. Not entirely without reason, many have come to see cable news’ serial dramas as tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing terribly relevant to their own lives. They may have gathered that Trump is a bit of a crook, but then aren’t all politicians? And anyhow, why should they care more about sketchy schemes in Ukraine than all the “Help Wanted” signs out on Main Street — or Trump’s firing of Colonel Vindman more than the recent hiring of a friend or relative who’d been suffering from long-term unemployment?
Meanwhile, Trump’s post-impeachment polling bounce has cowed his congressional opposition into more accommodative posture. And, thanks to the onset of primary season, the president’s most engaged and ardent critics in civil society have been consumed with our own internal disagreements. These developments have further expanded Trump’s latitude for lawlessness. He has been taking full advantage.
Where all this leaves the (increasingly aptly named) “resistance” is debatable. But one thing seems clear: The quicker Democrats can resolve their primary, the sooner they can redirect media attention toward Trump’s lawlessness, and their own focus toward the task of ensuring the president pays a belated price for that lawlessness come November.