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The Empire Strikes Back

With impeachment behind him, Trump is already steering his cruel reign in a darker direction.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

One day after the Senate acquitted him in 1999, Bill Clinton spoke from the White House about the grueling impeachment battle. It had been a bitter ordeal. He had lied to the country and broken the law. Congress defied the American people’s wishes to try to remove him from office. The House saw fit to impeach him; the Senate could not muster the support to convict him. That day, Clinton addressed the nation in a conciliatory tone.

“I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people,” he said. He spoke in terms of healing and transcending partisan divides. “This can be and this must be a time of reconciliation and renewal for America,” he added.

It’s hard to imagine how President Donald Trump could have done things more differently in his own address on Thursday. Speaking to a motley crowd of White House aides, Cabinet officials, and congressional allies, the president bounced between gratitude for his most ardent supporters and anger toward his perceived enemies. “It was evil, it was corrupt, it was dirty cops,” he seethed, referring to years of investigations into his misconduct. Now that Trump will no longer face consequences for his actions, the president and his allies are eager to inflict them upon everyone else.

One of the first targets so far is Alexander Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel who handled Ukraine policy on the National Security Council. Vindman testified before the House last fall about what he overheard during Trump’s fateful July 25 call and the events surrounding it. Conservative commentators responded by accusing the Ukrainian-born officer of treason and espionage. On Friday, the White House fired him for disloyalty—not to the country he serves in uniform, but to the president who coerced a foreign power into smearing an election rival.

“Today, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was escorted out of the White House where he has dutifully served his country and his President,” Vindman’s lawyers said in a statement on Friday afternoon. “He does so having spoken publicly once, and only pursuant to a subpoena from the United States Congress. There is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House. [He] was asked to leave for telling the truth.” Late Friday evening, the axe fell on Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who has also provided damning testimony during the House inquiry.

Other targets abound. Two Republican senators requested information from the Secret Service about Hunter Biden’s travels during his father Joe’s tenure as vice president. The Treasury Department has already given GOP lawmakers reports about his business dealings in Ukraine without a subpoena. Conservative media outlets are circulating the name of a person they claim is the whistleblower; Kentucky Senator Rand Paul read the name aloud on the Senate floor this week, then admitted he didn’t know if it was accurate. The Justice Department is reportedly pursuing an unusual investigation into whether former FBI Director James Comey leaked classified information.

The vengeful mood comes directly from the top. “I think he’s also going to talk about just how horribly he was treated and, you know, that maybe people should pay for that,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News ahead of Trump’s remarks on Thursday. Among those she singled out were Speaker Nancy Pelosi and California Representative Adam Schiff, the lead House manager in Trump’s trial. “Rep. Adam Schiff lied to Congress and the American people with a totally made up statement about the President’s phone call,” Grisham said in a statement after the Senate vote. “Will there be no retribution?”

Graham did not specify what form of retribution or payback the White House had in mind. Her remarks came after the House had already increased Schiff’s security detail during the impeachment trial, citing a notable uptick in threats against him. Federal prosecutors brought charges against an Arizona man earlier this week for threatening Schiff’s life after he was angered by something he saw on Fox News. On Thursday, Capitol police evacuated the congressman’s office after reports of a suspicious substance, underscoring the ongoing concerns about his safety.

Schiff isn’t alone. Other lawmakers have made oblique references to fears of violent reprisals from Trump supporters. Utah Senator Mitt Romney told Fox News earlier this week that he knew he could become a target when he decided to vote for the president’s conviction. “I have spoken a good deal with my family because this will have consequence—the blowback will have consequence, not just for me, but for my family, for my wife, for my sons, for my daughters-in-law, for my 24 grandkids,” Romney said. By including his grandchildren, it’s fairly clear that the senator wasn’t simply referring to angry tweets or hostile emails.

Romney’s concerns about his personal safety are disturbingly well-founded. Federal agents have foiled multiple plots by Trump supporters to murder the president’s political opponents. Trump himself stoked these fires during the impeachment battle. From the beginning, he described the House’s inquiry as an attempted coup d’état and echoed his supporters’ claims that House Democrats risked starting a civil war. The implicit message was that removing Trump from power would be inherently illegitimate, even if done through constitutional means, and that violence would, in turn, be a legitimate response.

The GOP’s 2012 standard-bearer was threatened with less dangerous forms of retribution, as well. As soon as Romney announced his decision, Donald Trump Jr. demanded the Utah senator’s expulsion from the Senate Republican caucus. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s top loyalists in the House, echoed that sentiment on Thursday. A state lawmaker in Utah even introduced a bill that would allow recall elections for senators. In the eyes of the modern Republican Party, every member owes the president their personal loyalty, and there is no greater sin than going against him.

That sense of shared grievance is a unique staple of Trumpism. The president himself has long been animated by his resentments toward others, whether as a Queens-born real estate scion who felt slighted by the wealthy Manhattan elite that he desperately longed to join, or as the unexpected victor of the 2016 election who feels surrounded by enemies—Congress, the courts, the FBI, the press, the civil service, and more—and slighted by their lack of respect and admiration for his achievements. That simmering enmity fuels all of his worst habits, especially his cruelty and malice toward others, as well as his lack of empathy for their misfortunes.

Indeed, much of Trump’s political strength stems from his ability to make supporters believe that their grievances are his own, and vice versa. Trump’s entire political community, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote in his seminal 2018 essay on the matter, “is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, [and they] have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.” Through that bond, Trump is able to convince his base that his impeachment woes were a threat not just to his presidency, but also, somehow, to their lives.

Serwer wrote about this phenomenon in the context of Trump’s cruel immigration policies, but it holds just as well for his desire to punish and aggravate his political foes. Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t commit a crime earlier this week when she tore up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union address in protest. He and his allies nonetheless demanded that she should be prosecuted for destroying federal records. Trumpism’s zero-sum ethos of “owning the libs” means it doesn’t matter that Pelosi didn’t actually commit a crime in any way, shape, or form. To paraphrase Serwer, the antipathy is the point.

What’s changed after the impeachment fight is Trump’s newfound sense of freedom. It’s doubtful that House Democrats will be able to muster the consensus for another bruising impeachment inquiry before the election, no matter what Trump might do to justify it. Indeed, the president’s lawyers essentially argued that he is beyond congressional oversight. It’s even less likely that Senate Republicans would want to convict him or even hold another trial. The only real constraint left on Trumpworld’s zeal for vengeance is the prospect of losing the presidential election in November. After that, all bets are off.