Democrats are watching the sum of all their Trumpian fears unfold, as the post-acquittal president exacts revenge on whistleblowers and invites more foreign interference into American elections.
And it’s dawning on Democrats there’s very little they can do about it.
Within the past week since President Trump was officially acquitted of the articles of impeachment brought by the House, he ousted a key witness, National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (along with his twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny), and appears to have gotten the attorney general to overrule career prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation for Trump crony Roger Stone, found guilty of lying to Congress.
“He's been emboldened and energized,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “We're going to be strategizing and doing everything possible to protect democracy.”
That was on full display Tuesday when the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, along with a few other Democrats, went to the chamber floor and offered three bills intended to ward off election interference in 2020.
One bill aims to safeguard elections from foreign interference while another requires campaigns to tell the FBI and Federal Election Commission if a foreign entity offers help in an election, and a third attempts to ban web-based voting machines in federal elections.
But Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) rebuffed the request for the Senate to unanimously approve the measures after dubbing them a "federal power grab."
All told, Democrats are almost numb this week, confronting the expansive executive power Trump continues to wield against them as he locks them out of one of Congress’ most basic duties: oversight.
“Our tools have been pretty dramatically weakened.”
“Our tools have been pretty dramatically weakened,” conceded Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) in the Speaker’s Lobby.
Himes is on the House Intelligence Committee, which spearheaded the impeachment probe. He says the party is fully behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has vowed House Democrats aren’t afraid to use the nation’s courts to try to compel speedy rulings on weighty constitutional matters.
“I'd like to believe that under a situation of crisis that the courts might actually expedite some stuff,” Himes said. “It turns out the president is now insulated from accountability, but others are not. Others are subject to criminal statute and that sort of thing.”
In the wake of Trump once again exacting political revenge on public servants who testified in the House under oath in spite of the White House trying to muzzle them, other Democrats are looking at updating whistleblower protections so that future presidents can’t fire officials who share vital information with Congress.
“We need a systemic fix to really protect whistleblowers,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) told VICE News just off the House floor. “This has exposed a bit of a weakness in those laws when it comes to enforcement, right? If the only recourse the whistleblower has who's been fired is to turn to our courts – and that takes a very long time to adjudicate – I would say that that is a real weakness in our current whistleblower laws.”
But, again, that would require a presidential signature, a remote possibility with Trump in the Oval Office.
What did Trump learn?
The Capitol — a place the founders envisioned as a safe space from outside influences — has been abuzz with fear the commander-in-chief would take the Senate’s vote to acquit on impeachment as a hall pass to shake down any foreign leader he wants.
Some Republicans, including vulnerable Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Joni Ernst of Iowa, justified their votes to acquit by claiming Trump learned his lesson from merely being impeached by the House. But rather than chastened, the president has been emboldened.
Collins didn’t approve of the impeachment-witness purge. “My general position is that anyone who answers a congressional subpoena and comes forward and testifies should not face retaliation,” Collins told reporters at the Capitol this week.
Asked if lawmakers can do anything to rein Trump in, she said, “I called to try to prevent the action.”
Even the central issue that prompted the impeachment proceeding is moving forward, as we learned Attorney General William Barr has established a pipeline for information Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani can dig up in Ukraine.
“The corruption is ongoing. It hasn't stopped.”
“The corruption is ongoing. It hasn't stopped,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters at the Capitol. “The president was sending Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to dig up more dirt in the middle of the impeachment trial.”
True to form in today’s predictably partisan and scripted Washington, Republicans disagree. That’s especially evident when the president’s alleged shakedown of Ukrainian leaders comes up. “These people haven't provided any evidence that that's what they did,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said.
While the House impeachment managers warned that Trump would feel more licence if the Senate acquitted him, most Republicans seem to have convinced themselves Trump can do no wrong. Still, Democrats argue they’ve seen this coming for months, if not years. Sen. Murphy says that’s why he was proactive and traveled abroad in 2019, to counter any White House efforts.
“That's what I did. I mean, I went to Ukraine to tell [President-elect] Zelensky not to get involved in an American election,” Murphy said. “I think one-on-one diplomacy with the world leaders to tell them to stay out of American politics is effective.”
That’s why most Democrats are almost feeling naked, or at least exposed, since Senate Republicans signed what Trump feels is his pass to do whatever he wants. “This is dangerous..” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “That he has invited and benefited from foreign interference in our last election and is completely unhesitant, unrepentant about doing it again.”
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a meeting with the president of the Republic of Ecuador in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 12, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)