WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump unleashed his fury against those who tried to remove him from office at a prayer breakfast Thursday, a day after his acquittal by the Senate in his impeachment trial.
Speaking from a stage where he was joined by congressional leaders, including Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led the impeachment charge against him, Trump shattered the usual veneer of bipartisanship at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
“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,” Trump said at the annual event. His airing of grievances came hours before he was to deliver a formal response to the impeachment vote at the White House.
“They have done everything possible to destroy us and by so doing very badly hurt our nation,” said Trump, who triumphantly held up copies of two newspapers with banner “ACQUITTED” headlines as he took the stage.
His remarks were whiplash-inducing after the more sober comments before him, including keynote speaker and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, who had described a “crisis of contempt and polarization” in the nation and urged those gathered to ”love your enemies.”
“I don’t know if I agree with you,” Trump said as he took the microphone, and then he proceeded to demonstrate it.
“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” he said in an apparent reference to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a longtime Trump critic who cited his faith in becoming the only Republican to vote for Trump’s removal.
“Nor do I like people who say ‘I pray for you’ when you know that is not so,’” he said, in a reference to Pelosi, who has offered that message for the president when the two leaders have sparred publicly.
The House speaker shook her head at various points during Trump’s remarks, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge the president’s attack. Earlier she had offered a prayer for the poor and the persecuted.
Trump also heralded his administration’s efforts to support free religious expression, an important issue to the evangelical Christians he values as part of his political base. Those efforts include protecting prayer in public schools and curtailing federal funding for organizations that discuss abortion services with patients,
His comments, including his usual campaign litany of economic boasting, were a clear sign that the post-impeachment Trump is emboldened like never before as he barrels ahead in his reelection fight with a united Republican Party behind him.
Republican senators voted largely in lockstep to acquit Trump on Wednesday, relying on a multitude of rationales for keeping him in office: He’s guilty, but his conduct wasn’t impeachable; his July telephone conversation with Ukraine’s president was a “perfect call”; there’s an election in 10 months and it’s up to voters to determine his fate.
For Trump, there was one overriding message to draw from his acquittal: Even at a time of maximum political peril, it’s his Republican Party.
Trump avoided talk of impeachment in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. By the next day, he was already moving to use impeachment as a 2020 rallying cry.
Trump tweeted after the Senate vote that he would mark his acquittal with a statement at noon Thursday to “discuss our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!” The president’s supporters were being invited to join him in the East Room.
The president and his allies sent giddy tweets needling his accusers and Democrats. In his first message, once the trial closed, Trump posted an animated video using a Time magazine cover to suggest he would remain in office “4EVA.”
Democrats handed some more good news to Trump. The Iowa caucuses, the nation’s first presidential nominating contest, was thrown into disarray by a tabulating mishap. That deprived any candidate of a clear victory and allowed Trump to paint the Democrats as incompetent and corrupt.
Trump’s tenuous relationship with the GOP establishment has been a consistent theme of his political life in recent years, and he has repeatedly put the party’s values to the test.
Still, most Republicans have grudgingly stuck with him, through the revelations of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he was heard boasting about sexually assaulting women, and Charlottesville, where he defended white supremacists during a racial clash in the Virginia college town, as well as Helsinki, where he sided with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies about Moscow’s 2016 election interference.
Now, they are giving him the victory he’s been waiting for and lashing their fates to his like never before.
Throughout the impeachment process, Trump drew satisfaction as Republican senators, many of whom opposed his long-shot candidacy and still dismiss him in private, overwhelmingly defended him and defied convention, tradition and public opinion polling in the process.
While Trump is among the least popular presidents in modern history, he has nonetheless maintained wide support among Republicans, with 83% approving of his job performance in a January poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center.
Taking their cues from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom Trump has a respectful, if not particularly close, relationship, GOP senators fell in line to block new witnesses and documents in the trial. The final vote Wednesday was no different: Only Romney, a longtime Trump critic, voted for removal.
Romney seemed to anticipate retribution, telling Fox News, “I have broad enough shoulders to bear the consequences.”
Trump has benefited from a new class of Republicans in Congress who have proved to be more partisan than their predecessors. Party members also know that Trump rains retribution on those who cross him. For all of Trump’s talk about how Democrats stick together, he’s got the Republicans in his fist.
“We’ve never had a president, as I said, who’s as vindictive and nasty as this one and he strikes fear in the hearts of a lot of people,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week.
Trump’s sky-high approval ratings within his own party acted as a deterrent that kept nearly all Republicans from breaking ranks. The fear was palpable among GOP senators worried not just about being the target of an angry tweet but about a Trump-backed primary challenger or a revolt among strong Republican supporters.
Still personally stung by impeachment, Trump is betting that he can sell his acquittal to the American people as a vindication, that he can activate his supporters and mollify even his skeptics in the center. Democrats are left with the more challenging task of explaining the details of the Ukraine case to the American people, and the White House believes Trump’s less complicated message will prevail.
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