Following the presentation of evidence in President Trump’s Senate trial, Senator Susan Collins argued that the president did not need to be removed from office because he has learned a “pretty big lesson” from his impeachment. The president did in fact learn lessons from his impeachment and acquittal, but all the wrong lessons, which he since has been applying in misleading the American people about the catastrophic pandemic, and exacerbating its devastating impact.
Mr. Trump was impeached because when confronted with an urgent crisis that threatened the security of our country — Russia’s hostile invasion of Ukraine — he put his personal and political interests over the interests of the country. He refused to protect the American people by releasing previously approved and desperately needed military aid for our vital ally unless that country agreed to help his re-election by announcing an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden.
While serving as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, I warned in my opening statement for the committee’s impeachment hearings that if the president got away with what he did, “our imagination is the only limit to what President Trump may do next.” Those concerns have unfortunately proved prescient, as the lesson Mr. Trump apparently learned from his Senate acquittal is that he could once again get away with putting his personal and political interests over the safety of the American people when confronted with an even more dire crisis.
The parallels are striking and, as with all recidivists, are particularly important for what they reveal about the president’s motives, intent and modus operandi. In other words, we have seen this movie before.
In considering President Trump’s motives, there is little doubt that he warned that he might withhold desperately needed equipment from states whose governors did not express appreciation for his efforts, such as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, to force these vulnerable leaders to act in his political interests. Of course, that is exactly the same card he played in response to Ukraine’s request.
The reason the president has made blatantly false claims about the availability of testing, the unmet needs of states for ventilators and masks, and the potential of unproven cures is again to advance his political standing by embellishing the success of his efforts. The reason he dismissed early pronouncements of the dangers of the virus by the health experts in his administration, and denied their validity, is because he cared more about the stock market falling and potentially harming his re-election prospects.
There can be little doubt that the president acted knowingly and intentionally in putting his personal and political interests over the health and safety of the American people by delaying the measures recommended by his advisers. Reports over the past few days reveal that he was warned in late January and early February of the costs of not acting quickly by his most senior advisers, including his health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, and his principal trade adviser, Peter Navarro.
And last weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the administration’s top infectious disease expert, appeared to confirm that he and his colleagues warned of the need for social distancing in mid-February, following a New York Times report detailing the delays. But President Trump nevertheless dismissed those warnings, and delayed announcing the need for social distancing and other actions recommended by his experts.
What these disclosures reveal about the president’s state of mind is not that his impeachment and Senate trial distracted him from these risks, as he and his supporters now claim. To the contrary, he was very much aware of these risks in real time, and his acquittal taught him that he could use the same means to again get away with abusing his power for his own selfish purposes.
Just as he deflected all responsibility and blamed others for the Ukraine scandal, he has done the same by simply saying “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the pandemic, and again blaming Democrats, this time the governors facing the consequences of his actions, in addition to the Democrats who impeached him, the media and the so-called deep state. The president’s name-calling and personal attacks on the governors, reporters and TV news anchors who tell the truth or criticize him is straight out of his impeachment playbook, mirroring his treatment of the ambassadors, administration officials and legislators who similarly told the truth about Ukraine or criticized him.
Finally, the president’s last move is to send a message to others that he is above the law and that anyone who reveals the truth about his actions will be punished. Mr. Trump’s recent termination of the inspector general for the intelligence community, whose forthright handling of the whistle-blower complaint helped to uncover the president’s wrongdoing, follows the firing and demotion of the other patriots who came forth with the truth about his misconduct toward Ukraine. It was clearly intended to send a message. In fact, immediately following his termination of the intelligence community inspector general, he removed the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, who had just been chosen to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and provide oversight of the administration’s distribution of $2.2 trillion in coronavirus relief funds.
The president will no doubt also try to seek retribution against those who tell the truth about what he knew of the Covid-19 risks and when he knew it. That may already be in the works, as reflected in the president’s retweet last week of a post critical of Dr. Fauci that ended with #FireFauci.
There is one administration official who deserves to lose his position for once again putting his own personal and political interests before those of the nation. The American people will make that decision in November and teach the president the right lesson.
Barry Berke is a trial lawyer who specializes in white-collar criminal defense.
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