Washington (CNN)It’s time to stop asking whether President Donald Trump will learn lessons from the controversies he constantly stokes — of course he does. But far from stepping back or opting for contrition as his critics and appeasers hope, Trump draws darker political conclusions.
The result is that he expands his own power by confounding institutional restraints and opening a zone of presidential impunity — while at the same time delighting his political base.
Trump’s interference in the sentencing of his long-time associate Roger Stone and a post-impeachment retribution splurge reflect a lifetime’s lessons of a real estate baron turned public servant.
On Wednesday, Trump publicly praised the Justice Department for reversing its call for a stiff jail term for Stone after his own critical late night tweet that laid bare fears of blatant interference in bedrock US justice.
“I want to thank the Justice Department for seeing this horrible thing. And I didn’t speak to them by the way, just so you understand. They saw the horribleness of a nine-year sentence for doing nothing,” the President told reporters.
He noted that the four prosecutors who quit the Stone case “hit the road,” raising the prospect that their protests failed to introduce accountability to the administration and only served to further hollow out the government and make it more pliable to the President.
Trump denied that he crossed a line. But his tweet left no doubt about what he wanted to happen. And his strategy, in this case and others, actually worked.
Just as he used US government power to smear Joe Biden in the Ukraine scandal, he succeeded in getting favorable treatment for a friend in the Stone case — though the final sentence will be up to a judge.
The Stone affair has also added to evidence that Attorney General William Barr is acting more as the President’s personal lawyer and less to ensure the neutral administration of justice.
Trump’s brazen approach was on also display Wednesday when he was asked what he learned from impeachment — after several GOP senators said they hoped he would take lessons to be restrained.
“That the Democrats are crooked, they got a lot of crooked things going. That they’re vicious, that they shouldn’t have brought impeachment,” Trump told reporters.
The week since Trump’s Senate trial ended has seen an unprecedented spectacle: A President acquitted of impeachable high crimes has recommitted himself to the shattering of guardrails that got him into trouble in the first place.
Trump’s actions are informed by a political history that has seen him rewarded every time he has sought to buckle Washington normality with the warm approval of his core voters.
The unchained behavior typically causes Democratic outrage and a push for new investigations, and causes an outburst of media coverage warning that US norms are under attack. Such controversy only confirms for many Trump supporters that he is exactly the kind of disruptive force that they hoped for when they sent him to battle the Washington establishment in 2016.
Trump’s belligerence makes for unpleasant moments for the Republican senators who acquitted him last week after a four-month impeachment drama who face awkward questions about the President’s behavior from reporters on Capitol Hill.
But when they return home they have earned the approval of the Trump voters they need to stave off primary challenges and retain their seats when they’re up for reelection. Underlining that his political strength in the heartland is impervious to Washington angst, the President tweeted out a series of congressional endorsements on Wednesday.
Trump’s pattern of behavior relies on an indifference to the health of US political and judicial systems on the part of the President and a willingness to destroy trust in institutions that could take decades to recover from his power plays.
They also send messages to prosecutors across the country that it’s permissible to allow political considerations to taint judicial business. And it risks establishing a precedent that future presidents — Democratic or Republican — will use to enforce their writ at the Justice Department.
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