Trump, impeachment, and the politics of revenge

Peter Grier

The president was raging in his office, under pressure from external events and angry at his perceived enemies. 

Revenge was on his mind.

“Don’t worry about divisiveness – having drawn the sword, don’t take it out – stick it in hard,” President Richard Nixon told aides in the tense spring of 1970. “Hit them in the gut.”

Half a century later, President Donald Trump is perhaps feeling those same emotions. With his impeachment drama over, he is pummeling prominent opponents with the powers of his office, firing some who testified in the House against his wishes, and lashing out at others he believes have betrayed him, such as Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who voted for President Trump’s removal from office.

Like other chief executives before him, President Trump may see retribution as a deterrent to future enemies and a sign of political strength. But history shows the line between strength and politically damaging vindictiveness is a fine one. And the notion that the U.S. government and its officials should be open to fierce criticism dates from the Founding Fathers.

After President George Washington suggested that critics of the government should be reined in, “James Madison said ... in our system, it is not the government that acts as censor over the people, but the other way around,” says Chris Edelson, a fellow at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, in an email.

President Trump’s retribution against those he may believe share blame for his impeachment predicament began in earnest last Friday, leading Democrats to dub it the “Friday Night Massacre,” echoing the famous “Saturday Night Massacre” of Oct. 20, 1973, which ended with President Nixon dismissing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

On Friday, President Trump fired two of the most prominent impeachment witnesses within hours of each other. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was removed from his post at the National Security Council, along with his twin brother, also an Army officer who worked at the NSC. Then Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union and a Republican who donated $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee, was informed of Mr. Trump’s intention to recall him.

Both Colonel Vindman and Ambassador Sondland were already planning to move on from their positions within months, if not weeks. But President Trump apparently chose to make a public point by forcing them out early. The moves came a day after the president had celebrated the end of impeachment with a raw, vindictive hour-long address in the White House East Room and an appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast at which he questioned the religious faith of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Romney.

At the Prayer Breakfast, President Trump followed conservative thinker Arthur Brooks, who, echoing the Sermon on the Mount, had stressed the need to love our enemies.

“Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you,” the president said as he rose to speak.

“The chilling effect that could have”

Following the firings some Trump supporters said it was only natural that the president should move aside officials he no longer trusted. The dismissals were entirely within his power, they pointed out. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said Thursday that Mr. Trump was glad impeachment was now over and “maybe people should pay for that.” The president himself claimed that Colonel Vindman was “insubordinate” and had received a poor report from his superior at the NSC.

Colonel Vindman’s lawyers disputed those allegations. And some former members of the armed forces say they are not happy about the way he was treated, including the president’s use of quote marks to describe him as “‘Lt. Col.’ Vindman,” as if the Purple Heart recipient’s rank were arbitrary or he were an imposter.

For instance, the public manner in which Colonel Vindman lost his post bothers Joe Baringer, a former Army staff sergeant who deployed early in the Afghanistan War that began in 2001 and took part in the U.S. invasion of Iraq two years later.

“You can understand the need to reassign someone if you’re claiming you’ve lost confidence in their ability to fully support the mission. That’s nothing unusual,” says Mr. Baringer, who lives in Seminole, Florida, and works as a data developer for an insurance distributor.

“But the way they decided to go about it was wrong,” he adds, “and my fear is it will erode confidence in whistleblower protections and make people think twice about coming forward.”

Joe Fuentes, a former staff sergeant with the Marine Reserves and an Afghanistan War veteran, holds similar concerns about Colonel Vindman’s dismissal and the collateral damage to his brother’s career.

“You wonder about the chilling effect that could have on recruiting people into national security jobs,” says Mr. Fuentes, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Columbia University in New York.

“If you’re looking to hire people who only have the same perspective as you, that’s going to discourage some people from applying for those jobs,” he says. “And without those different perspectives, you could end up with overly simplistic solutions applied to our interactions with our adversaries.”

Trump turns up the heat

As for Ambassador Sondland, a number of GOP senators warned President Trump against firing him, saying such overt retaliation would look bad and was unnecessary, considering Mr. Sondland’s plans to leave. But the president went ahead anyway.

President Trump has also turned up the dial on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Senator Manchin votes with Republicans more than any other Senate Democrat, and some thought he might vote for Mr. Trump’s acquittal. He didn’t, and has since become a regular target of the Trump Twitter account. The president has labeled him a “puppet” and Joe “Munchkin.”

And more impeachment-related dismissals may be in the offing, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Monday on Fox News.

Presidential enemy lists aren’t new of course – President Nixon compiled a famous one. In September 1972, with Watergate news dripping into the public domain, presidential attorney John Dean told his boss he’d been keeping notes on people who had acted as Nixon adversaries.   

Good, the president said. The administration had not yet used the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Internal Revenue Service as instruments of reprisal, “but things are going to change,” President Nixon told Mr. Dean.

During the John F. Kennedy presidency, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was the administration enforcer. Even President Jimmy Carter had a mean streak that leaned toward reprisals, according to his White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler.

This was perhaps a holdover from President Carter’s days as governor of Georgia, where political payback was common.

“There were some petty revenges that were taken,” Mr. Cutler said in an oral history at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Roots in America’s colonial past

As for the Founding Fathers, in general their concern was that government as a whole not respond to criticism with tyranny. Before the revolution, the English law that governed the American colonies recognized “seditious libel” – criticism of government or officials such as royal governors – as a crime, points out American University’s Dr. Edelson.

Truth was no defense. In other words, even if the royal governor were a crook, you could be prosecuted for saying so.

Under the U.S. Constitution, freedom of speech is protected, including the freedom to criticize government actions and officials. That legal heritage today has led to laws protecting whistleblowers.

“In our system, it is not the government that acts as censor over the people, but the other way around,” says Dr. Edelson.

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