Sunday 26 January 2020

'The country is doing better than ever before; we did nothing wrong' - while the House voted in Washington, Trump rallied in Michigan

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts during a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, U.S., December 18, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis
U.S. President Donald Trump reacts during a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, U.S., December 18, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey

US President Donald Trump took the stage at a rally on Wednesday night just before the House began voting to impeach him - a striking and surreal split screen for a president who had journeyed 600 miles from the Capitol but was unable to escape the reality that he would become only the third president in the nation's history to be impeached.

"By the way, it doesn't really feel like we're being impeached," Trump said moments into his speech. "The country is doing better than ever before. We did nothing wrong - we did nothing wrong - and we have tremendous support in the Republican Party like we've never had before."

When the House impeachment vote actually happened - just 17 minutes after Trump emerged to applause in this critical 2020 battleground - the president was in the midst of a meandering and free-associating riff that included, but was not limited to, the Space Force, nuclear submarines, the recent budget deal with Congress, a military F-35 plane and a pilot who looked like Tom Cruise.

But Trump also devoted a significant portion of his rally to the topic of the day, offering an outraged denunciation of Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for leading the impeachment effort.

"After three years of sinister witch hunts, hoaxes, scams, tonight, House Democrats are trying to nullify the ballots of tens of millions of patriotic Americans," Trump said.

He added later: "This lawless partisan impeachment is a suicide march for the Democratic Party."

The president's furious visage - red-faced to the shade of burnt sienna, sweat beading on his upper lip - belied the image aides had scrambled to project all week of a leader in high spirits even as he faced a historic low point.

His rally, which lasted almost exactly two hours, also took on a manic tone, with Trump denouncing everyone from sitting members of Congress (Pelosi and Democratic Republicans Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Carolyn Maloney from New York), former residents of the White House (Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), current 2020 Democratic hopefuls (former vice president Joe Biden; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts), failed 2020 Democratic hopefuls (former congressman Beto O'Rourke), and a slew of media outlets (including the New York Times and The Washington Post).

Trump's tone was also particularly nasty at times. He joked that Bill Clinton perhaps refers to his wife simply as "Crooked" and imagined a conversation between the couple, with the former president berating his wife during the 2016 campaign for not visiting swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

"You horrible human being, you better start listening to me, or you're gonna get your ass whooped," Trump pretended Bill Clinton told Hillary Clinton.

Trump extolled his decision to fire former FBI director James Comey, asking, "Did I do a great job when I fired his ass?"

And of Dingell, Trump called her "a real beauty," noting he was watching her on television during impeachment proceedings.

He said he gave her family "a treatment" after the death of her husband, congressman John Dingell, and that she told him, in an emotional call, that John Dingell was "thrilled" looking down from heaven.

"Maybe he's looking up," Trump said, drawing some moans from the Michigan crowd.

Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke before the president, told the crowd that Trump was going to wait a bit before coming out because he wanted to watch the impeachment vote and take in the display of Republican unity. That pause, as well as the delayed start of the rally, created the stark contrast with the historic event unfolding in Washington.

The rally came after a full day of House debate over the evening vote to impeach the president, who hunkered down in the White House residence on Wednesday with no public events on his schedule before the campaign trip - and who weighed in on Twitter no fewer than 49 times.

A rage-filled letter laced with falsehoods that Trump sent Pelosi on Tuesday had offered an epistolary preview of what Trump delivered in performative fashion onstage in Michigan on Wednesday night.

The outcome of the political struggle was largely preordained: House Democrats voted to impeach Trump on Wednesday night, but the Republican-controlled Senate probably will vote to acquit him early next year. Those in Trump's orbit said the president took solace in the GOP's unified front and in regular briefings from his campaign team, who counseled optimism.

The campaign repeatedly showed Trump its impeachment polling and reassured him that, at least in the short term, the process has ignited fundraising, further solidified his core supporters and even helped boost him slightly in some key battleground states, a senior campaign official said.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the impeachment of Trump - who said Tuesday that he bore "zero" responsibility for his predicament - will ultimately play out not just on separate screens, but also across almost entirely separate realities.

By mid afternoon, as the debate on the House floor raged on, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway appeared in the White House briefing room, where she did not officially brief the press but stood just to the side of the lectern and denounced the impeachment inquiry.

The statements on the House floor, too, took on a tale-of-two-impeachments tone. Republican Mike Kelly, - who in 2012 generated considerable criticism after comparing the Affordable Care Act's birth control mandate to the bombing of Pearl Harbor - wielded the historical allusion again, saying that Trump's impeachment and Pearl Harbor were both December days "that will live in infamy."

Republican Barry Loudermilk, seemed to compare Trump to Jesus, who he claimed received a fairer trial than the president before his crucifixion.

"When Jesus was falsely accused of Treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers," Loudermilk tweeted. "During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president in this process."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, meanwhile, urged House Republicans to look past partisan politics and instead be "profiles in courage" by voting to impeach the president.

Competing realities emerged even from within Trump's own White House. Press secretary Stephanie Grisham claimed the president was "working all day," though a cursory read of Trump's Twitter feed on Wednesday cast doubt on that notion. His first tweet, as he watched "Fox & Friends," came just after 7 am, and by mid afternoon, he had tweeted nearly four dozen times.

He had no publicly scheduled events beyond his rally and remained in the White House residence for much of the day. White House officials said he participated in several private meetings, including on the spending package and prescription drug pricing.

Even his fiery Tuesday letter to Pelosi proved something of a Rorschach test, eliciting different takeaways depending on the audience.

The six-page missive contained more than a dozen false and misleading claims, decrying impeachment as "egregious," "terrible" and "illegal," and underscored the starkly personal lens through which Trump views the inquiry.

"You do not know, nor do you care, the great damage and hurt you have inflicted upon wonderful and loving members of my family," he wrote at one point.

At another, he accused Pelosi of offending not just the nation's founders, but also Americans of faith "by continually saying 'I pray for the President,' when you know this statement is not true, unless it is meant in a negative sense."

Pelosi, the letter's intended recipient, described it as "sick." A White House official happily noted that Trump had managed to dominate news coverage with his letter, amplifying the defiant posture he has maintained throughout the process.

"I don't think the tone was new," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. "The letterhead was new, but the tone was not."

Other Republicans viewed the letter as not especially productive, but as part of the "normalized crazy" even allies have now come to expect from Trump, said one Republican Senate aide.

Brendan Buck, a longtime former Hill aide who is now a Republican operative, said the historic import of the moment was undermined by the drastically different political perspectives that dominated the proceedings from the outset.

"This debate never felt as weighty as it should because the issues were just no match for the tribalism," Buck said. "From the very start, the process was predictable and the outcome obvious. And at the end of it all, we're basically right back where we started. There's a stain on his legacy but no appreciable change in the political dynamics."

The most recent previous impeachment, of President Bill Clinton in 1998, played out somewhat differently. Similar to Trump, Clinton decried the "excessive partisanship" and "obsessive animosity" that led to the vote, but he also seemed to acknowledge and accept his reality.

After the House vote was official, Clinton donned a coat and walked to the Rose Garden where, alongside first lady Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, he offered his remarks.

"I hope there will be a constitutional and fair means of resolving this matter in a prompt manner," Clinton said, shortly before heading back into the White House to throw a Christmas party. "Meanwhile, I will continue to do the work of the American people."

This time around, almost exactly 21 years to the day of Clinton's impeachment, the dichotomy was on display in ways big and small.

Senator Chris Murphy, shared on Twitter what he called a "true story" of a White House staffer making the rounds among Senate offices to deliver, as a single holiday package, a copy of Trump's scathing letter to Pelosi alongside two White House Christmas cards - one large white one and one smaller red one with Trump's signature marker scrawl in gold.

"What a day," Murphy concluded.

- Washington Post

Online Editors

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News