Don’t worry, America. No need for repercussions! President Donald Trump has already learned his lesson, probably.
So say Republican lawmakers too cowardly to hold the president accountable for setting a lynch mob upon them.
“My personal view is that the president touched the hot stove on Wednesday and is unlikely to touch it again,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Sunday when asked whether Republican leaders planned to hold Trump responsible for his role in the violent siege of the Capitol.
It’s not clear what, precisely, Blunt meant by “unlikely.” Maybe he thinks the chances that Trump will again encourage violent insurrection are, oh, 40%; maybe they’re closer to 20%. What probability that a sitting president might instigate a civil war is an acceptable level of risk?
Blunt’s comment echoed other squirrelly explanations for why lawmakers, almost exactly a year ago, didn’t feel the need to punish Trump the last time he committed obviously impeachable offenses.
“I believe that the president has learned from this case,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said last February, explaining why she would vote to acquit Trump. “The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.”
Other GOP colleagues who voted to acquit made similar, willfully naive comments, claiming that Trump would somehow be chastened by his impeachment. Even though the experience left him effectively unscathed. “Hopefully, he’ll look at this and say, ‘OK, that was a mistake,’” said then-Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has since retired from his Tennessee seat.
These two cases of unlearned “lessons” are, of course, related. In both situations, Trump tried to interfere with the free and fair functioning of U.S. elections — first by trying to coerce the help of a foreign ally, second by enlisting the aid of domestic terrorists. Both times, he faced few political consequences.
This time, at least, Trump got kicked off Twitter (and Facebook and Twitch, among other platforms). And, OK, social media access does rank higher on Trump’s hierarchy of needs than it does on most people’s. Even so: Getting booted from Twitter is not much punishment for inciting an attempted coup. A teenager who Snapchatted “F--- cheer” faced more serious consequences from her high school.
A lesson can’t be learned if it’s never been taught. And the only lesson Trump has ever been taught — over and over again, in both his private life and his political one — is the one he preached on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape: When you’re a star, they let you do it.
Republican lawmakers, Cabinet officials and other allies who have the power to hold Trump accountable have long turned a blind eye to his bad behavior. Occasionally they have impotently professed disappointment when Trump proved anew that he was capable of grotesque, national-security-compromising, violence-inciting, democracy-destroying acts. Some were shocked (shocked!) after he praised the “very fine people on both sides” at a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017); and shocked again after his administration used gas, and force, to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square last year so the president could hold a photo-op with a Bible; also after he tacitly endorsed deranged QAnon conspiracy theorizers; after he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”; after he glorified supporters who tried to run a Biden-Harris campaign bus off the road; after he pressured Georgia state officials to commit election fraud, and called a member of his own party who refused to do so an “enemy of the people.”
Each time, Republican officials gave Trump a pass. And in so doing, they emboldened him.
Even the rare Republicans who have rebuked Trump for his role in Wednesday’s Capitol riot seem to have memory-holed the many times they let him off scot-free.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt at all — there’s none in my mind — that the president’s behavior after the election was wildly different than his behavior before,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who recently called on Trump to resign, said Sunday when asked whether he regretted not doing more to stop Trump earlier.
Former congressman and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who quit a diplomatic post in response to the Capitol riot, likewise argues that Trump is “not the same as he was eight months ago.” Which is utter hogwash. Trump is the same today as he was eight months ago as he was four years ago as he was two decades ago. He’s always been a thug, and he has always received positive reinforcement from allies like Mulvaney for his thuggery.
Trump never learned his “lesson” because he never faced consequences. But then, neither did the allies who should have imposed those consequences. Those who had the power to hold Trump accountable and refused to do so must now be held to account as well.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.