By MERIDITH MCGRAW and DANIEL LIPPMAN – POLITICO
Years from now, impeachment will be one of the first things students are taught about the 45th president
Real estate mogul, billionaire, reality show host, late-night show punch line, populist rabble rouser, norm-busting leader — impeached president.
Beyond the immediate ramifications of the all-but-certain outcome of this week’s vote, impeachment will always be attached to President Donald Trump. Years from now, it will be one of the first things students are taught about the 45th president.
It’s a reality that has tormented past presidents who faced the prospect of impeachment. In the days before his resignation, President Richard Nixon confessed to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger his fears that Watergate would define his legacy. President Bill Clinton fretted behind closed doors about how history books would paint him, even as he projected a dismissive attitude in public.
“For Trump, now impeachment will appear in the opening paragraph of his life,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
Outwardly, Trump characteristically swats away any suggestion that such questions weigh on his mind. “No, not at all,” Trump said earlier this month, shaking his head when asked if he was worried about the potential stain impeachment will have on his legacy. “It’s a hoax, it’s a hoax, it’s a big fat hoax.”
But Trump’s pugilistic insistence belies a longstanding fixation on his personal image and the legitimacy of his presidency.
From the day he sent Sean Spicer out to harangue journalists over the crowd size at his inauguration, Trump has waged a three-year campaign to wear down any doubts about his right to occupy the Oval Office. He set up — and then quietly abandoned — a panel to investigate his specious claims that only voter fraud kept him from winning the popular vote in 2016. He publicly sowed doubts about Russia’s election-year meddling. For White House visitors, reporters — anyone really — he constantly pulled out the red-saturated map detailing how districts voted in 2016.
The common theme: I deserve to be here. I earned this.
“Obsessed” is how one former White House official described Trump’s mindset about how people will remember him. Trump, the ex-official said, has told people around him that impeachment would leave his presidency “tainted.”
“His image is hugely important to him,” the former official said. “He is going crazy over this because the legacy he is looking for is the greatest president — even more so than Abraham Lincoln or George Washington.”
Instead, his name will now be included on another short list of presidents — those attached to impeachment. It’s an ignominious group that includes Andrew Johnson, remembered for his refusal to ensure racial equality and voting rights for African-Americans after the Civil War, Richard Nixon, who resigned before being impeached but nonetheless caused generations of Americans to lose faith in government, and Bill Clinton, who has remained popular but is facing a reassessment of his impeachment legacy in the #MeToo era.
“Donald Trump understands the same thing as the progressive left — his presidency is transformative and historic,” said Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. “He also understands that his opponents have even more hatred for him than Nixon and Clinton’s had for them. He takes this very seriously because he takes his place in history very seriously — and he knows that this is going to matter today and 100 years from now.”
Even before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her plans to move forward with impeachment proceedings, the president accused his critics of conducting a “witch hunt” against him and his administration. But as momentum builds towards the House formally voting on articles of impeachment, the president is fuming even more about what he sees as efforts to undermine, embarrass and invalidate his time in office.
“I don’t think anybody wishes to go through this process on any president or any nation. And the divisiveness that we are seeing now is probably at the most extreme levels that I’ve ever seen,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who speaks to the president regularly. “I don’t see how it’s accomplishing anything. It affects every single person in the headlines that are constant each and every day.”
On the eve of a House vote, the president angrily ticked through a list of over 20 accomplishments that he believes should comprise his legacy in a scathing letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The letter, drafted at Trump’s direction and composed with the help of several senior aides, touched on all of the president’s favorite hits — jobs, the economy, the military, the Second Amendment “and so many other things.”
“Nobody’s done as much as I’ve done in the first three years,” he finished.
Trump views impeachment as a pejorative that looms over his entire family. It’s a theme that he’s hit several times, including at a November rally in Louisiana.
“It’s been very hard on my family,” Trump said. “Impeachment, to me, is a dirty word. It’s been very unfair, very hard on my family. Me, my whole life is crazy.”
Trump returned to the theme in his letter, admonishing Pelosi: “You do not know, nor do you care, the great damage and hurt you have inflicted upon wonderful and loving members of my family.”
Trump has spent years integrating his family into his personal brand. Trump put his daughter, Ivanka, and his two sons, Don Jr. and Eric, in senior positions at the Trump Organization. All three became featured judges on “The Apprentice,” the business competition reality show that portrayed the Trump family as the epitome of ruthless, capitalist success to millions of Americans.
In the White House, Trump has winnowed down the staff around him, while leaving his family members-turned advisers — Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner — untouched. Kushner’s portfolio has grown to include nearly every issue central to the Trump presidency: reshaping immigration policy, building the southern border wall, waging the China trade war, working with Israel and composing an unreleased Middle East peace solution.
Essentially, the Trump presidential legacy is synonymous with the Trump family legacy.
“Even back in the campaign in 2016, he’s mentioned legacy and his family’s legacy and how being president will affect both the past, the present and the future of the Trump family,” said a second former White House official. “It’s not just invalidating him and himself. It’s also trying to invalidate his legacy and his family’s legacy and I think that cuts a lot deeper.”
Trump has been his own public defender, spending his mornings watching impeachment proceedings and reacting in real time on Twitter to the latest from House hearings. His obsession with his defense has led to accusations he’s not spending enough time tending to his work at the White House.
“Unlike Trump, who is only focused on watching television and staging rallies and hectoring opponents on Twitter, consumed with his image, Clinton spent most of his time dealing with the substance of his job — domestic and foreign policy,” said David Maraniss, a Clinton biographer. “He was just as focused as Trump on survival — he lived in survival mode — but he had a wider field of vision, an understanding of policy, and could do many more things at once.”
The White House disputed that Trump was at all distracted by the ongoing impeachment saga.
“President Trump has accomplished more at this point in his first term than any President in history in spite of 93 percent negative news coverage and a fake Russia collusion which hunt that lasted two years,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere in a statement, pointing to several issues, including the economy, a criminal justice reform bill, military spending increases and scores of judicial appointments. “No one can dispute his successes.”
A president has never been up for re-election following impeachment proceedings, placing even more pressure on Trump to win in 2020. For Trump and his team, the election is a chance for vindication.
“One thing that’s never been tested in history is a reelection after an impeachment and it does pose a question of delegitimizing impeachment. And it makes reelection even more central to his legacy,” said a person close to the White House.
Trump and his campaign have paid special attention to impeachment polling and have tried to re-brand impeachment as just another cost to Trump flipping Washington upside down. White House aides are confident the impact of impeachment will be minuscule, and that Democrats, not Trump, will be the ones to suffer politically.
“The White House is in great spirits,” said Jason Miller, a former 2016 campaign adviser and co-host of the “War Room: Impeachment” radio show and podcast. “I think public opinion has shifted in such a direct manner away from Democrats and away from impeachment.”
But recent polling suggests public opinion has barely budged since the impeachment proceedings began, and remains largely split. An ABC News/Washington Post poll published Tuesday shows registered voters split on their views of impeachment, with 49 percent in support and 46 percent against. And while Clinton leaned on his high approval ratings — 73 percent of Americans approved of him the day after the House voted to impeach him — Trump’s own approval numbers, while his best yet, are still languishing at 41 percent, according to Quinnipiac.
Yet for future generations, all the in-the-moment political jockeying and minute fluctuations in opinion polls will fade from memory. What will last is the simple fact that Donald Trump was impeached.
How that fact should be portrayed will be debated for generations to come.
Trump gave his own spin on Tuesday. “One hundred years from now, when people look back at this affair,” he wrote in his letter to Pelosi, “I want them to understand it and learn from it, so that it can never happen to another president again.”
In time, historians will determine whether the impeached president was right.