It was midnight in Washington and the impeachment trial was still being broadcast.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, complained about the lateness of the hour. Sure, the trial was important, he said, but many Americans were no doubt already asleep. In my case, an unlikely combination of jet lag, exhaustion and hopes of an early start the next day had me in bed at my hotel in San Francisco at 9 p.m. When not nodding off I struggled to keep track of the events that had unfolded on the first day of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.
We all know how this will end. Trump will be acquitted by the Republican-led U.S. Senate, and will then try to use the trial to his advantage in the 2020 campaign. But I write these lines because I’m certain that Trump will lose something more important than the presidency. What he has actually achieved is self-destruction. He has never understood that acquiring power isn’t life’s real goal; it is coming into power without lying or cheating. It’s about a legacy. And like his damning tweets, his hate-filled speeches and dubious actions to hold on to power will not simply disappear.
On the day that his impeachment trial began, Trump delivered a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He employed his usual rhetoric, with a few different words: I’m the best, America is the best, and nothing else compares to what I’ve achieved.
But this unspeakably self-centered president — who has described himself as “a very stable genius” — is adamant in his insistence that the U.S. Congress cannot accuse him of abusing his power. He has maintained this stance of untouchability most of his life; in a 2005 'Access Hollywood' video that surfaced during the 2016 presidential campaign he can be heard bragging about groping women with utter impunity because he was “a star.” Despite this, over 62 million Americans voted for him and put him in the White House.
This time, however, things are different.
Trump called the president of Ukraine last July, allegedly to ask him for “a favor.” Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president, knew exactly what Trump meant. Before he would release nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine authorized by Congress, Trump (as shown in a series of messages) asked Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on one of his main political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter, who had sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine-based gas company.
The quid pro quo Trump proposed to the Ukrainian president seems quite straightforward: Give me information on my possible opponent in the 2020 presidential race, and I’ll give you the money. It’s as simple as that. You give me what I want, and I’ll give you what you need. This is a bully demanding loyalty and obeisance.
Trump’s problem is that he got caught red-handed. That has led to the trial on two impeachment articles: abuse of power for personal gain, and obstruction of Congress during the corresponding inquiry.
Trump, in response, has thrown a very public tantrum. On the second day of the trial, he tweeted or retweeted 142 times — a personal record for his presidency. Many included lies or insults. According to The Washington Post’s database of the president’s false or misleading statements, Trump has made 16,241 untruthful claims during his three years in the White House.
Trump, accustomed to having his way, is doing everything in his power to keep Americans in the dark. First, he forbade his main administration officials — those who were aware of the threats he had made to Ukraine’s president — from testifying in his impeachment trial. Second, he has refused to provide documents and emails that would likely prove his deception.
Republican senators will likely choose to be complicit in Trump’s efforts to cover up any misconduct. I’m not sure Trump has any lifelong allies, but I do know that he turns fear to his advantage. And what would really please him is to bury all this as quickly as possible, and avoid any stain on his self-declared reputation as a winner.
That’s why he doesn’t want any key witnesses at the Senate trial. That’s why he refuses to provide official documents. That’s why the trial’s first day dragged on past midnight.
As he attempts to protect this sham notion of himself as a perpetual champion, the U.S. president is losing his battle with history. He will always be remembered as the bully who was caught red-handed. Worse, we can’t help but wonder if, given the opportunity, Trump wouldn’t just cheat again.