His place in the history books about to be rewritten, President Donald Trump awaited his second impeachment — something no other president has faced — largely alone and silent.
For more than four years, Trump has dominated the national discourse like no one before him. That’s just what made his position on the sidelines Wednesday, while his legacy was about to be permanently redefined, all the more stunning.
Trump would now stand with no equal, the only president to be charged twice with a high crime or misdemeanor, a new coda for a term defined by a deepening of the nation’s divides, his failures during the worst pandemic in a century and his refusal to accept defeat at the ballot box.
Trump kept out of sight in a nearly empty White House as impeachment proceedings played out at the heavily fortified Capitol. There, the damage from last week’s riots provided a visible reminder of the insurrection that the president was accused of inciting.
Abandoned by some in his own party, Trump could do nothing but watch history unfold on television. The suspension of his Twitter account deprived Trump of his most potent means to keep Republicans in line, giving a sense that Trump had been defanged and, for the first time, his hold on his adopted party was in question.
With only a week left in Trump’s term, there were no bellicose messages from the White House fighting impeachment and no organized legal response. Some congressional Republicans did defend the president during the House debate in impeachment, their words carrying across the same space violated by rioters one week earlier during a siege of the citadel of democracy that left five dead.
It was a marked change from Trump’s first impeachment. That December 2019 vote in the House, which made Trump only the third president ever impeached, played out along partisan lines. The charges then were that he had used the powers of the office to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political foe, now-President-elect Joe Biden.
At that time, the White House was criticized for failing to create the kind of robust “war room” that President Bill Clinton mobilized during his own impeachment fight. Nonetheless, Trump’s allies did mount their own pushback campaign. There were lawyers, White House messaging meetings, and a media blitz run by allies on conservative television, radio, and websites.
Trump was acquitted in 2019 by the GOP-controlled Senate and his approval ratings were undamaged. But this time, as some members of his own party recoiled and accused him of committing impeachable offenses, Trump was isolated and quiet. A presidency centered on the bombastic declaration “I alone can fix it” seemed to be ending with a whimper.
The third-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, said there had “never been a greater betrayal” by a president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told colleagues in a letter that he had not decided how he would vote in an impeachment trial.
For the first time, Trump’s future seemed in doubt, and what was once unthinkable — that enough Republican senators would defy him and vote to remove him from office — seemed at least possible, if unlikely.
But there was no effort from the White House to line upvotes in the president’s defense.
The team around Trump is hollowed out, with the White House counsel’s office not drawing up a legal defense plan and the legislative affairs team largely abandoned. Trump leaned on Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to push Republican senators to oppose removal. Graham’s spokesman said the senator was making the calls of his own volition.
Trump and his allies believed that the president’s sturdy popularity with the lawmakers’ GOP constituents would deter them from voting against him.
The president was livid with perceived disloyalty from McConnell and Cheney and has been deeply frustrated that he could not hit back with his Twitter account, which has kept Republicans in line for years. Trump was expected to watch much of the day’s proceedings on TV from the White House residence and his private dining area off the Oval Office.
His paramount concern, beyond his legacy, was what a second impeachment could do to his immediate political and financial future, according to four White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing. They were not authorized to speak discuss private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The loss of his Twitter account and fundraising lists could complicate Trump’s efforts to remain a GOP kingmaker and potentially run again in 2024. Moreover, Trump seethed at the blows being dealt to his business, including the withdrawal of a PGA tournament from one of his golf courses and the decision by New York City to cease dealings with his company.
A White House spokesman did not respond to questions about whether anyone in the building was trying to defend the president.
One campaign adviser, Jason Miller, was circulating a survey conducted by the president’s pollster earlier this week as he tried to make the case that voters would prefer the country skip impeachment and move on. Miller has argued Democrats’ efforts will serve to galvanize the Republican base behind Trump and end up harming Biden.
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The only word from the president by midafternoon Wednesday was a two-sentence statement condemning the violence. It was a message that was largely missing one week earlier when rioters marching in Trump’s name descended on the Capitol to try to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s victory.
“In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking, and NO vandalism of any kind,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House. “That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for. I call on ALL Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers.”
The reminders of the Capitol siege were everywhere as the House moved toward the impeachment roll call.
Some of the Capitol’s doors were broken and windows were shattered. A barricade had gone up around outside the building and there were new checkpoints. Hundreds of members of the National Guard patrolled the hallways, even sleeping on the marble floors of the same rotunda that once housed Abraham Lincoln’s casket.
And now the Capitol is the site of more history, adding to the chapter that features Clinton, impeached 21 years ago for lying under oath about sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and Andrew Johnson impeached 151 years ago for defying Congress on Reconstruction. Another entry is for Richard Nixon, who avoided impeachment by resigning during the Watergate investigation.
But Trump, the only one in line to be impeached twice, will once more be alone.
Lemire reported from New York.
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