WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump and his Republican allies focused on exacting payback against his political opponents Thursday after his acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial, signaling that the conflict that has consumed Washington for months may only escalate rather than recede.
Choosing retaliation over reconciliation, Trump lashed out at Democrats and the one Republican senator who voted for conviction. He turned a prayer breakfast into a launching pad for political attacks and then staged a long, rambling venting session at the White House where he denounced "evil" and "crooked" lawmakers and the "top scum" at the FBI for trying to take him down.
Trump's team indicated that his desire to turn the tables on his foes may go beyond just tough language. The White House press secretary declared that Democrats "should pay for" impeaching the president, and the Trump administration worked to facilitate a Senate Republican investigation of Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, the goal of Trump that was at the heart of his impeachment.
"It was evil," Trump said of the investigations that led to his Senate trial in an hourlong stream-of-consciousness address to supporters in the East Room of the White House, tossing aside the more calibrated text prepared by his staff. "It was corrupt. It was dirty cops. It was leakers and liars, and this should never ever happen to another president, ever. I don't know that other presidents would have been able to take it."
Democrats showed little sign of backing down either. House Democrats have already said they are likely to resume their investigation into Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine to incriminate the Bidens, while a Senate Democrat on Thursday called for an inquiry into whether the administration covered up related information by improperly classifying it.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sat just feet from Trump as he questioned her faith during the annual National Prayer Breakfast, later pushed back against his implication that she was disingenuous for saying she prayed for him. Some of his remarks, she said, were "particularly without class" and "so inappropriate at a prayer breakfast."
She also suggested that Trump appeared to be on medication during his State of the Union address Tuesday. "He looked to me like he was a little sedated," she told reporters. "Looked that way last year, too."
Trump's vituperative performance Thursday was the diametrical opposite of how President Bill Clinton responded to his own acquittal after a Senate impeachment trial in 1999. On the day he was cleared of charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, Clinton appeared alone in the Rose Garden, said he was "profoundly sorry" and called for "reconciliation and renewal."
His Republican opponents at the time were just as eager to move on, feeling burned after losing seats in midterm elections and watching not one but two of their House speakers step down. One important difference is that Clinton was in his second term, while Trump is seeking reelection in a campaign framed in part by the impeachment debate.
For Trump, the Senate's rejection of the two articles of impeachment against him Wednesday was marred by the fact that Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was the only senator to break rank, joining every Democrat in voting to convict Trump for abuse of power.
Angry at Romney's defection, Trump waited a day to appear in person with supporters in the East Room in a ceremony that veered between celebration and confrontation.
Trump held up a copy of The Washington Post to show its banner headline, "Trump Acquitted," then reviewed the long litany of investigations against him over the last three years, dismissing them as partisan efforts to stop him from serving as president.
"We first went through Russia, Russia, Russia," he said, mocking the investigations into the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 presidential election on his behalf and ties between his campaign and Moscow. "It was all bullshit," he said, the first time he or any president has been known to use that profanity in a formal event on camera in the East Room, according to Factba.se, a research service.
The talk included a greatest-hits string of attacks on some of Trump's top villains, including former FBI director James Comey ("that sleazebag"); his onetime deputy Andrew G. McCabe; former FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok ("two lowlifes"); and former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, as well as Hunter Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
He called Pelosi "a horrible person" and Romney "a failed presidential candidate" who used "religion as a crutch" and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House manager, a "corrupt politician."
The president thanked his lawyers and congressional Republicans, praising them one by one for their support. In particular, he highlighted Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader and his most important defender in the Senate. "You did a fantastic job," Trump told him.
He called out more than a dozen other Republican defenders, including Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader; Jim Jordan of Ohio; Mark Meadows of North Carolina; and Elise Stefanik of New York. Noticeably absent, and unmentioned by the president, were Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer at the center of the Ukraine pressure campaign, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of his most outspoken allies.
"This is sort of a day of celebration, because we went through hell," Trump said. "But I'm sure they'll try and cook up other things," he added of the Democrats, "because instead of wanting to heal our country and fix our country, all they want to do - in my opinion, it's almost like they want to destroy our country. We can't let it happen."
In the wake of Trump's acquittal, Republican senators pressed their inquiries into Hunter Biden's finances, seeking to prove that the president was right to insist that Ukraine investigate him and the former vice president.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said the Treasury Department had readily complied with a request by the Republican majority for documents related to Hunter Biden's business dealings in Ukraine, contrasting with the administration's refusal to provide papers for the House impeachment inquiry.
For their part, Democrats were still seeking investigations, too. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut asked the Government Accountability Office to review whether the Trump administration misused classification power to hide information about the president's Ukraine pressure campaign. And House Democrats have already said they will probably subpoena John Bolton, a former national security adviser, to ask about Ukraine.
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said Democrats should be made to answer for what she called a dishonest attack on Trump. "Maybe people should pay for that," she said on Fox News. Asked to elaborate, she equated Trump with the United States. "People should be held accountable for anything they do to hurt this country and this president," she said.
Trump's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast was as overtly political as any president has delivered at the annual event, traditionally a bipartisan affair marked by talk of faith and common ground. He triumphantly held up newspapers reporting his acquittal, cited rising stock markets, boasted about his approval rating and urged the audience to vote in the fall.
Trump's speech followed a keynote address by Arthur Brooks, a Harvard professor and prominent conservative thinker, who called on Americans to "love your enemies." At one point, Brooks asked the audience, "How many of you love somebody with whom you disagree politically?" Hands around the room shot up. "I'm going to round that off to 100%," he said. But Trump did not raise his hand.
"Contempt is ripping our country apart," Brooks continued. "We're like a couple on the rocks in this country." Without directly mentioning Trump, Brooks added: "Ask God to take political contempt from your heart. And sometimes when it's too hard, ask God to help you fake it."
Trump made no effort to fake it. "Arthur, I don't know if I agree with you," he said when he took the microphone. "I don't know if Arthur is going to like what I'm going to say."
He then launched into his grievances. "As everybody knows, my family, our great country and your president have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people," he said.
Without naming them, Trump singled out Romney and Pelosi. "I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong," Trump said of Romney. Then, referring to Pelosi, he said, "Nor do I like people who say, 'I pray for you,' when they know that's not so."
It was the first time the speaker and the president had appeared together since the State of the Union address, when Trump refused to shake Pelosi's hand before his speech and she ripped up her copy of his speech after he gave it. When Pelosi gave a short talk at Thursday's breakfast about the poor and persecuted, Trump refused to look at her, glowering with undisguised antipathy.
By the end of his speech at the prayer breakfast, Trump recognized that his message did not fit the love-your-enemies theme. "I apologize. I'm trying to learn," he said. "It's not easy. It's not easy. When they impeach you for nothing, then you're supposed to like them? It's not easy, folks. I do my best."
At a news conference later at the Capitol, Pelosi dismissed Trump's comments. "I don't know if the president understands about prayer," she told reporters, but said she prays "hard for him because he's so off the track of our Constitution, our values."
"He really needs our prayers," she added. "He can say whatever he wants. But I do pray for him."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company