The Memo: Trump is tainted but not done
Did Saturday’s impeachment verdict finally bring an end to former President Trump’s central role on the political stage?
Has the Trump show finally been canceled?
There are plenty of people who hope so. But they are likely to be disappointed.
There is some level of bipartisanship to the appetite to be rid of Trump after the four turbulent years of his rule culminated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asserted on Saturday that there was “no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible” for the riot. Seven Republican senators — a figure at the higher end of expectations — voted to convict the former president.
Among Democrats, too, there is a desire to move on. At the White House, President Biden and his aides are eager to get moving on a domestic agenda that is topped by an ambitious coronavirus relief package.
The Democrats’ desire to decide Trump’s fate expeditiously was also seen on Saturday. The party’s impeachment managers ultimately declined to call witnesses, even after having won a vote to do so.
The taint that now hangs over Trump will never be erased. He is the only president to have been impeached twice and the subject of the most bipartisan vote ever to convict.
Trump’s other legal troubles may be beginning rather than ending. Prosecutors are eying his business dealings as well as his efforts to get officials in Georgia to overturn the state’s results.
For any normal politician, the game would have been up a long time ago.
But Trump has never been a normal politician. For all the abhorrence he sparks in his critics, he also speaks to parts of conservative America that other Republicans cannot reach. He can still channel the id of his base like no one else.
In an Economist/YouGov poll conducted Feb. 6 to Feb. 9, Trump, though viewed favorably by just 39 percent of the overall population, won the backing of 87 percent of Republicans. Only 36 percent of Republicans viewed McConnell favorably.
As the verdict was announced on Saturday, the former president blasted out a statement promising that “our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun.”
The shape that this will take is yet to be decided. Thrown off his favorite platform, Twitter, Trump has been deprived of one of his most effective megaphones. He has spent his time in Florida surprisingly quietly, abjuring even the telephone call-ins to favored broadcasters that he has relished in the past.
But those who are expecting Trump to disappear from the political scene need to be realistic about the likelihood of that happening.
It has become almost an article of faith, even among Republican strategists and pundits, that Trump is finished as a candidate for elected office.
Can they be sure? It’s assumed that Trump will not run again for the presidency. But if he did, who is the Republican who would beat him for his party’s nomination?
Would former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley or Florida Sen. Rick Scott (R) vanquish him? Would Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)? Or another of his old 2016 rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)?
Even now, with Trump disgraced in the eyes of half the country and much of the world, he would start as the favorite in any of those match-ups.
Trump could also focus on exerting his influence rather than on running for office himself. His new political action committee began the year with a bank account of more than $30 million. The cash can’t be used directly to fund a Trump campaign, but it could help primary candidates running in his image.
Then there is Trump himself to consider. A man who has devoted much of his life to grabbing the media spotlight seems unlikely to live out his days with quiet rounds of golf in the South Florida sunshine.
A whole right-wing media ecosystem has always been in his thrall and remains so. Regular appearances there, as well as other possibilities such as a book deal, could see him back in the public eye.
Biden, for one, will be hoping that is not the case. The new president has mostly avoided getting into the mud with Trump, either during the election campaign or since his victory. He claimed to not even be watching the Senate impeachment trial live.
Biden’s desire to get some level of Republican cooperation on his agenda will be made a lot easier if Trump is not daily accusing any GOP politician who crosses the aisle of treachery.
It is, of course, possible that Trump will slowly fade.
One Trump-skeptical Republican pointed to the example of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), whose celebrity on the right initially survived the loss she suffered as the vice presidential running mate of 2008 GOP nominee John McCain. But Palin’s star dimmed after a while.
The strategist’s point was that political influence is not always as enduring as we tend to think.
But even that source acknowledged that Trump is a bigger figure than Palin ever was, by orders of magnitude.
None of this is to deny how damaged Trump is in the eyes of the general public. He is anathema to huge swaths of the country. History will cast its judgement on a presidency marked by Muslim bans, Charlottesville, child separations and the insurrection.
But the Trump base exists in a wholly separate category.
It hasn’t gone away — and the former president is its standard-bearer for as long as he wants to be.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.