In 1999, on the day he was acquitted in a Senate impeachment trial, President Clinton appeared alone in the Rose Garden and, in exceedingly brief remarks, offered a contrite apology to the nation and a fervent call for reconciliation.
President Trump was in a far different mood Thursday, a day after the Senate acquitted him on two articles of impeachment.
He offered an apology only to his immediate family — “for having them have to go through a phony, rotten deal by some evil and sick people” — not to Americans who endured a bitter impeachment struggle for only the third time in U.S. history.
Speaking mostly without notes for more than an hour, Trump veered from sarcasm to scorn. Although his tone was subdued, he toggled between brash triumphalism and maudlin self-pity, at times vindictive and vulgar, blithely attacking Democrats and basking in ovations from scores of Republican lawmakers, aides and political allies who crowded into the East Room of the White House.
There was no overarching message for the country as a whole — just a president, having escaped removal from office and running for reelection, offering a stream-of-consciousness monologue that sounded like a pep rally one minute and a therapy session the next.
“This is really not a news conference. It’s not a speech. It’s not anything,” Trump mused shortly after he walked in to a rendition of “Hail to the Chief.” “It’s just we’re sort of — it’s a celebration, because we have something that just worked out. I mean, it worked out. We went through hell, unfairly.”
Trump brushed off the investigations that have clouded his first three years in office, asserting that his survival is a testament to his will, not the absolute partisanship that has taken hold.
“It was evil, it was corrupt, it was dirty cops, it was leakers and liars,” Trump said. “I don’t know if other presidents would have been able to take it.”
The president’s comments, two days after his State of the Union address laid bare the current depths of the acrimony in Washington, added more fuel to his personal feud with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the raging fires of partisanship.
“Nancy Pelosi is a horrible person,” Trump said Thursday, lamenting that not a single Senate Democrat broke ranks to vote for his acquittal.
“They don’t lose anybody, so they’d be able to impeach anybody,” he said. “You could be George Washington, you could have just won the war. They’d say, ‘Let’s get him out of office.’ And they stuck together and they’re vicious as hell and they’ll probably come back for more, but maybe not, because the Republican Party’s poll numbers have now gone up.”
Harking back to the 22-month investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump portrayed himself as the target of never-ending investigations that, in his view, amount to little more than politically motivated Democratic attacks.
“We first went through Russia, Russia, Russia. It was all bullshit,” Trump said. “We then went through the Mueller report, and they should have come back one day later. They didn’t, they came back two years later after lives were ruined, after people went bankrupt.”
He added, “They kept it going forever because they wanted to inflict political pain on someone who had just won an election.”
For much of the speech, Trump singled out Republican lawmakers, lawyers and officials in the room, lavishing them with gratitude, praise and jocular ribbing, underscoring his continued determination to keep his party unified behind him.
During the first week of the impeachment trial, the lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), rankled several Republican senators when he referenced an anonymously sourced news report that a Trump aide had threatened GOP lawmakers that any who defected during the trial would have their “head on a pike.”
But Trump’s public praise for those who backed him, and his expressions of scorn for the lone GOP defector, showed the premium he places on loyalty.
As he addressed Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), he bristled momentarily about the state’s junior senator, Republican Mitt Romney, who voted Wednesday to convict Trump on the article of impeachment for abuse of office.
“Say hello to the people of Utah and tell them I’m sorry about Mitt Romney,” Trump said. “We can say by far that Mike Lee is the most popular senator from the state.”
He circled back to Romney toward the end of his meandering remarks, which also included tangents about the “unbelievable range” of the 1960s-era New York Yankees infielder Bobby Richardson, his fondness for an Arizona lawmaker’s last name — “I liked the name ‘Lesko.’ I liked it.” — and Rep. Jim Jordan’s workout routine.
“The only one who voted against [acquittal] was a guy who can’t stand the fact that he ran one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency,” Trump said. Romney was the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.
While many of Trump’s most ardent defenders echoed his claims that he’d done nothing wrong, several Republicans who voted to acquit Trump expressed concern that he had withheld $391 million in military aid to Ukraine last summer as he pushed the country’s new president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival.
Some Republicans even called the president’s behavior inappropriate but said they did not view it as an abuse of office that warranted removal.
The White House had considered a speech after the vote Wednesday, but that was scuttled after Romney’s surprise vote in favor of conviction denied the president the straight party-line vote he’d hoped for.
Earlier Thursday, Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and did even less to hide his still-simmering agitation.
He held up two newspapers — “ACQUITTED,” the boldface headlines screamed — as he took the stage and immediately lambasted the Democrats who led the investigation of his shadow diplomacy with Ukraine and argued for his removal from office.
“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 as congressional leaders, including Pelosi, sat nearby on the dais.
“They have done everything possible to destroy us and by so doing very badly hurt our nation.”
Without mentioning them by name, Trump singled out Pelosi and Romney.
“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Trump said a day after Romney had choked up during his Senate floor speech, explaining his vote for conviction as a matter of upholding his oath to God.
“Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when you know that is not so,” Trump continued, referencing Pelosi’s past comments that she was keeping the president in her prayers.
Trump’s harsh tone during the traditionally bipartisan program directly followed the morning’s keynote address from Harvard theologian Arthur Brooks, who delivered an impassioned plea for people to “love your enemies.”
When Brooks asked if members of the audience loved someone with whom they disagreed politically, almost everyone raised their hands. Trump, seated close by on the dais, did not.
“Ask God to take political contempt from your heart,” Brooks said. “And sometimes when it’s too hard, ask God to help you fake it.”
When Trump took to the lectern, he made clear he was unconvinced. “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you,” Trump said before launching into his diatribe.
When he finished, he acknowledged the discordant tone of his own vindictiveness.
“I apologize, I’m trying to learn,” Trump said. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy. When they impeach you for nothing, then you’re supposed to like them? It’s not easy, folks. I do my best.”
Pelosi shrugged off Trump’s comments a couple of hours later during a news conference at the Capitol.
“He’s talking about things that he knows little about: faith and prayer,” she said. “He can say whatever he wants, but I do pray for him sincerely.”