Well, that didn’t take long. Within 72 hours of surviving his second impeachment Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFederal prosecutors investigated Proud Boys ties to Roger Stone in 2019 case: CNN Overnight Defense: One-third of service members decline coronavirus vaccine | Biden to take executive action in response to Solar Winds hack | US, Japan reach cost sharing agreement Trump ‘won’t say yet’ if he’s running in 2024 MORE went full nuclear attack on Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump ‘won’t say yet’ if he’s running in 2024 On The Trail: Trump threatens a Tea Party redux Trump to appear on conservative networks in wake of Limbaugh’s death MORE, threatened primaries against any Senator or House member who has crossed him and essentially declared his personal ownership of the Republican Party.
So much for Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRiot probe to likely focus on McCarthy-Trump call Graham: Lara Trump is biggest winner of impeachment trial Congressional Democrats say Trump acquittal was foregone conclusion MORE’s (R-S.C.) claim that Trump is “ready to move on.” One can’t help but wonder if Graham has entered some kind of “biggest fool on the planet” reality TV contest (which he is winning).
It should have been clear long ago to even the most fervent Trump supporter that Trump is — and always will be — all about himself. GOP Senators thinking Trump will be cowed are just whistling past the graveyard.
If Graham and his colleagues are not now regretting their acquittal of Trump as a necessary first step to formally barring him from any federal office, they will be soon. It is clear, and quite predictable, that Trump stayed quiet during impeachment — but he was just playing possum.
Trump will not — and can not — leave the stage. The idea that Trump would willingly surrender the spotlight and all its attention and money is utterly absurd. To do so would also be an admission of defeat — another impossibility. Any Republican leader thinking Trump is going to fade away is either a fool or living in a world of delusion.
Hiding behind a dubious constitutional argument (but really unwilling to take the political heat), Senate Republicans, with the opportunity to move the Republican Party beyond Trump, choked in the clutch. Between likely retirements and members not up for election until 2024 or 2026, there were easily 17 votes to convict. Instead, the Senate GOP caucus chose to act in the moment rather than thinking about where the political world would be in 2024.
It is worth noting that Senate Republicans who voted for acquittal acted in the opposite way intended by the Founding Fathers. First, the Founders were highly concerned about concentration of power and thus sought to provide for strong checks and balances. The idea that they intended to allow a president to engage in egregious behavior and run out the clock is laughable. Second, the Senate is structured specifically to insulate its membership from the whims of public opinion — hence the staggered 6-year terms. It is the House and its 2-year terms that is to be most reflective of public whims. In that way, both Sen. Graham and Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyMore people say Greene representative of Republican Party than Cheney: poll Republican Party going off the rails? Trump unloads on McConnell, promises MAGA primary challengers MORE (R-Wyo.) acted contrary to constitutional intent.
Now that Trump has dodged the bullet, he is about to make the Republican Party pay the price for its pusillanimity. In a replay of the past five years, Trump will dominate the political conversation on the right. He will corral as much fundraising as he can. And he will not share anything — not the spotlight, nor the fundraising — with anyone.
An unbound Trump will litigate every grievance loudly and publicly. He will engage only in perfunctory attacks on the Democrats and Biden, allocating his vast reserve of vitriol on (as he sees them) disloyal Republicans. Voting for acquittal is no protection. Trump could not care less what you did for him in the past, only your usefulness in the present matters — as Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence pays tribute to Limbaugh: ‘Today America lost a Giant’ Ex-Trump press secretary criticized for stirring up QAnon on Twitter Overnight Health Care: Biden administration ups vaccine distribution to states | HHS pick to get Senate hearing next week | Average daily new coronavirus cases dip below 90K MORE found out the hard way.
In doing so, Trump will continue to suck up all the oxygen and leave little to no room for other Republicans to take the stage and build for 2024. And that is part of Trump’s goal. He wants to keep his options open for 2024, and the best way to do that is to not let anyone else on stage.
Barring Trump from future office would have severely hurt his appeal. Without the possibility of being president again, he would have dwindled to just another entertainment option — and not a very good one. He is not a broadcaster like Rush Limbaugh or a streaming star like Joe Rogan. Republicans and conservatives will necessarily have to start looking for a new party standard-bearer.
And this is where the Republican Senate misread the public and the polling. While it is true that Trump still polls strongly among Republican voters, the fact is he commands attention far more than any other GOP leader. Possible presidential candidates like Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyRepublican Party going off the rails? GOP consultant calls Haley the party’s 2024 front-runner Republican support for Trump to play role in party up 18 points from early January MORE, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBette Midler: Texas freeze may be ‘payback’ for Cruz, Cornyn not recognizing ‘that #Joe won’ Texas governor faces criticism over handling of winter storm fallout Texas lawmakers’ tweets mocking California power outages resurface amid winter storm MORE (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioNYT podcast host says it’s ‘ironic’ Rubio is against childcare allowance The Memo: Trump is tainted but not done Three years later, father of Parkland shooting victim calls for meaningful school safety reform MORE (R-Fla.) barely exist in the current polling.
That polling doesn’t tell us how much of Trump’s support is personal loyalty. It doesn’t tell us what percentage of Republicans simply oppose the Democrats and their issue agenda or what percentage are reacting against the legacy media and its reflexive left-wing preferences. How many simply have had enough of the suffocating political correctness of the left? Trump is a very public rallying point — and, since the Democratic progressive agenda, legacy media and political correctness are not going away, other politicians could fill that oppositional vacuum.
Mitch McConnell likely saw these issues clearly. There is little question he was open to conviction, but a caucus leader can only take his members as far as they were willing to go.
The failure to bar Trump from future office means the GOP’s chances in 2024 may well rest on how the various court cases and investigations against him proceed. Impeachment did cause Trump to back away from pardoning himself and his family.
If Trump is convicted in a court of law, impeachment — by stopping the Trump pardon express train — may end up having been successful after all. That is a thin, risky reed for Republican Senators to depend upon, but they just might get lucky — in spite of themselves.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.