It was, the White House tweeted on Friday, “an incredible week” for Donald Trump. On that, no one could disagree. But what kind of incredible depended on which end of Pennsylvania Avenue you were standing.
At the Capitol, the third impeachment trial of a US president got under way in hushed solemnity as senators contemplated the ultimate sanction, removing Trump from office. It was a day his most ardent critics had long awaited and some thought inevitable.
Yet the White House, less than two miles away, might have been in a different cosmos. The president held a boisterous ceremony to sign a trade agreement with China, “the biggest deal anybody has ever seen”, and celebrated as Congress passed another deal with Canada and Mexico. He toasted stock market records, low unemployment and a sustained fall in illegal crossings at the southern border.
It had the makings of an election year narrative of “promises made, promises kept” that Trump’s campaign hopes will resonate more than a Senate litigation of his dealings with Ukraine which, in any case, appears certain to lead to his acquittal.
“He seems determined to check as many boxes as he can,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington. “If you look at the three pillars of the distinct outlook he brought with him to the White House – getting tough on immigrants, leaning hard against unbalanced trade relationships and an ‘America first’ foreign policy – you’d have to say over recent months he’s gone three for three.”
To be sure, there was plenty of bad news for Trump. Democrats from the House of Representatives marched funereally through the Capitol to transfer the articles of impeachment, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, to their Senate counterparts. The entrance of Chief Justice John Roberts injected sudden grandeur and gravity. Chuck Schumer, Democratic minority leader in the Senate, said: “When the chief justice walked in, you could feel the weight of the moment. I saw members on both sides of the aisle visibly gulp.”
Moreover, as senators prepare to weigh evidence that Trump improperly pressured Ukraine to investigate a political rival, a federal watchdog concluded that he broke the law when he froze military aid to the country last year. And Lev Parnas, a close associate of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, tossed in another hand grenade with a TV interview that directly implicated the president in efforts to pressure Ukraine. “President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
For most viewers of that network, and millions of liberals across America, it was yet another nail in the coffin of a man who has long been beyond redemption and whose re-election is unthinkable.
I think there’s an element of genuine incomprehension. He thinks he’s the greatest president of all timeBill Galston
But not the first time, there was a profound disconnection with Trumpworld, a place where the sun is always shining. Here, in meetings, ceremonies and rallies, the president basks in constant affirmation from fervent supporters and sycophantic staff. Such is the bubble of self-congratulation, it is perhaps not surprising Trump is baffled by the contempt and derision he glimpses outside it. He frequently asks bemusedly how a president with his record could be impeached.
Galston said: “I think there’s an element of genuine incomprehension. He thinks he’s the greatest president of all time and his protestations of injured innocence I take seriously as a representation of his inner state.”
‘Clinton was more disciplined’
On Wednesday, as dozens of reporters craned their necks beneath the crystal chandeliers of the ornate East Room, Trump stood with with Chinese vice-premier Liu He for the signing of the US-China phase one trade agreement. Before they put pen to paper, the president spent the best part of an hour giving shout-outs to his favourite officials and members of Congress. Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, was a “much better golfer than people would understand”.
Amid the applause, adulation and levity, it was hard to believe the existential threat of impeachment was unfolding up the road. That was just one more laugh line. “Kevin McCarthy, as you know, left for the hoax,” Trump said of the Republican minority leader, prompting chuckles. Then he added darkly: “Well, we have to do that, otherwise it becomes a more serious hoax.”
On Thursday, the paradox continued. Senators passed Trump’s United States-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, or USMCA, with an 89-10 vote, then were sworn in as jurors for an impeachment trial certain to be far more divisive. Galston added: “To have the Senate vote with nearly 90 in favour of the trade deal and be split down the middle on impeachment on the same day is stunning.”
But Galston, a former deputy assistant to Bill Clinton for domestic policy, recalled that the last impeachment had its own dichotomies. “As Clinton careened towards a Senate trial in late 1998, Democrats won a big victory in the midterm elections and Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House, felt compelled to resign. Talk about a split screen. I’ve seen this movie before.
“But President Clinton was more disciplined. When he had ceremonies at the White House he never talked about the other side of the screen. President Trump is obliterating the line.”
‘Not paying attention’
In what would normally be a week of crisis, Trump was claiming other perceived victories. A caravan of about 2,000 Hondurans, reminiscent of those the president demonised in 2018, was on the move but looked unlikely to reach the US-Mexico border this time, in part because of new asylum agreements with Central American countries. The number of people crossing the border has fallen for seven months in a row.
A big bowl of cold oatmealVan Jones on the Democratic debate
Trump even seems to have got away with his biggest, most impulsive gamble in foreign policy, the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qassem Suleimani, as the threat of all war apparently receded. “Trump Wins His Standoff with Iran”, proclaimed a Washington Post headline above a column by Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter for George W Bush.
The president’s final boost of the week may have come at the Democratic debate in Iowa where, in the eyes of some critics, no one claimed the mantle of Trump-slayer.
“I came away feeling worried for the Democratic party,” political analyst Van Jones said on CNN, comparing it to “a big bowl of cold oatmeal” and warning: “There was nothing I saw tonight that would be able to take Donald Trump out, and I want to see a Democrat in the White House as soon as possible.”
Trump has, in fact, failed to keep many promises: making Mexico pay for a border wall; growing the economy at 4% a year; repealing and replacing Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act; passing a $1tn infrastructure bill. Even his China trade deal has been condemned as a surrender. None of that has stopped his campaign ads portraying him as a man of action and touting a list of achievements in contrast to “do nothing” Democrats obsessed with the arcane business of impeachment.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution thinktank at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, said: “The trial does not feature Trump himself and could turn out to be intensely boring. A lot of viewers are not paying attention. It doesn’t affect their lives. That’s what I find when I travel.”
And the president, who has already raised millions of donor dollars off impeachment, will try to turn it to his political advantage. Whalen added: “Since he first started running for president, he realised he could get very far by making it an ‘us versus them’ mentality. In a swaggering way, he makes himself a victim. He’s not suffering but he just makes you believe he’s being persecuted.”