BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — President Donald Trump angrily responded to the impeachment he had long been dreading Wednesday, lashing out at his Democratic accusers in a rambling two-hour speech and calling for their defeat in November.
Moments after the House passed two articles of impeachment against him, he told a campaign rally in a state he won in 2016 that is crucial to his reelection that the vote was an attempt to “nullify the ballots of tens of millions of patriotic Americans.”
But in his mostly unscripted remarks, Trump claimed he was enjoying himself.
“They said there’s no crime,” he said. “There’s no crime. I’m the first person to ever get impeached and there’s no crime. I feel guilty. It’s impeachment lite.”
He paused before adding, “I don’t know about you, but I’m having a good time.”
His rejoinder presented the remarkable image of a combative president standing unbowed before his core supporters even as he became the third in American history to be impeached.
But more often he seemed embittered, mocking the physical appearance of his rivals, attacking the news media, calling a female protester a “slob” and a “disgusting person,” and suggesting that John Dingell, a Democratic congressman from Michigan who died in February after serving 59 years in the House, had gone to hell.
Above all, Trump insisted that the vote to impeach him — which unfolded at what had been billed as a “Merry Christmas” campaign rally — was nothing more than a fabrication by Democrats who cannot tolerate his presidency.
“Crazy Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats have branded themselves with an eternal mark of shame,” he said.
Trump showed no contrition for the cause of his impeachment — the pressure campaign he waged against Ukraine, in which he pressed the country’s new president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and look into various allegations about the 2016 election, including an unfounded theory that Ukrainians rather than Russians had stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee.
To the contrary, Trump blithely repeated an unfounded charge that it was the former vice president who had inappropriately pressured Ukraine’s government.
Even by his own standards, the president’s speech was discursive and sometimes strange, as when he digressed to complain that modern toilets lack adequate flushing power and that “women” had informed him that dishwashers, too, have lost their historic oomph.
At the moment the House approved the first article of impeachment, for abuse of power, about 17 minutes after he took the stage, Trump was bragging about how F-35 fighter pilots were even more handsome than the “Top Gun” actor Tom Cruise.
“Is there a better place in the world to be than a Trump rally?” he asked at one point. But as the speech went on, supporters began leaving in significant numbers or, in some cases, appeared to doze off in their seats.
In the moments he did return to the subject of impeachment, he framed the results as an affirmation. At one point, Trump — prompted by a campaign aide holding up a sign for him to see from the stage — paused to triumphantly announce that Republicans had voted along party lines, casting the modest three Democratic defections as another victory, drawing cheers from a crowd that seemed to revel in his every claim.
“It doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached,” the president said. “The country is doing better than ever before. We did nothing wrong. We have tremendous support in the Republican Party like we’ve never had before.”
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Trump’s decision to hold a rally and immerse himself in the warmth of an adoring crowd at the critical juncture in his presidency was an echo of how he handled his worst public humiliation — the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape on Oct. 7, 2016, during the final days of his 2016 presidential campaign.
After holing up at Trump Tower the day after that video was released, Trump emerged after seeing on television that a crowd of supporters had gathered on Fifth Avenue. He walked through the glass doors, pumped his fist in the air, and then walked back into his building, clapping his hands as if cheering himself on.
On Wednesday night, Trump appeared to rally his own spirits by reminiscing about his 2016 victory in front of an adoring crowd, and taunting the 2020 Democratic presidential field. “She’s gasping for air,” he said of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, while poking fun at the pronunciation of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s name.
The speech — the second-longest he has ever delivered, according to Factba.se, a service that compiles and analyzes data on this presidency — was vintage Trump, hitting on his favorite targets, like Lisa Page, the former FBI lawyer, and James Comey, the former FBI director. “Did I do a great job when I fired his ass?” he asked.
After a riff about Trump’s 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, his audience briefly reprised a favorite chant from that campaign, “Lock her up.” Some similar shouts were issued in response to Comey’s name.
Trump also lashed out at a woman who was escorted from the auditorium by security after interrupting his remarks and making profane gestures, and encouraged security to act more forcefully to remove her. “You got to get a little bit stronger than that, folks,” Trump said to cheers of approval.
But more than anything, his anger at the House Democrats rang through. He declared that they had embarked on “a political suicide march” and predicted that Americans would soon vote Speaker Nancy Pelosi “the hell out of office.”
Yet in a false note, the crowd was clearly uneasy when the president attacked Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Dingell’s widow. Trump fumed that she had voted for his impeachment even though he ordered the lowering of flags after her husband’s death “Maybe he’s looking up” instead of looking down, Trump said.
Dingell responded later Wednesday, writing on Twitter that Trump had “brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”
The president, described by his aides as having been in a frustrated, snappish mood for days, spent much of the day at the White House watching the impeachment debate on television and tweeting or retweeting more than 50 times.
“They want to Impeach me (I’m not worried!),” he wrote in one post Wednesday morning. “And yet they were all breaking the law in so many ways. How can they do that and yet impeach a very successful (Economy Plus) President of the United States, who has done nothing wrong? These people are Crazy!”
The first image of Trump on Wednesday came as he cut across the South Lawn, alone, dressed in a dark overcoat and prepared to depart for Michigan. Instead of making a beeline for the cameras and microphones gathered outside of the Oval Office, as he typically does, he silently trudged over to a small group of supporters before leaving without taking any questions from reporters.
Earlier, Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, stood in the White House briefing room and said Trump was in good spirits. “The president is fine,” Conway said, “his mood is good.”
Trump campaign aides and White House officials like Conway have been projecting confidence that the impeachment inquiry has only served as fuel for the president’s campaign, bolstering its fundraising efforts as well as its volunteer recruitment. But privately, people who know him said, Trump has been aware of the historic nature of a charge of “high crimes and misdemeanors” and has been aggrieved at what he views as a stain on his legacy, a desire by Democrats to harm him personally and what he sees as the failure of Republicans to state with more conviction that he did nothing wrong.
Some of that anger played out online Wednesday as Trump watched cable news coverage of the impeachment debate. “SUCH ATROCIOUS LIES BY THE RADICAL LEFT, DO NOTHING DEMOCRATS. THIS IS AN ASSAULT ON AMERICA, AND AN ASSAULT ON THE REPUBLICAN PARTY!!!!” he wrote on Twitter.
His all-caps burst of online frustration came minutes after the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, tried to convey a sense of business as usual in the West Wing, saying in a statement that the president would be “working all day” and catching some of the impeachment proceedings “between meetings.”
Other aides were also committed to a “just another Wednesday” narrative, noting that legislative affairs officials were busy on Capitol Hill working on the revised trade agreement with Mexico and Canada as well as two spending bills.
But Trump’s grievance-infused state of mind was laid out clearly in a six-page letter the White House sent Tuesday to Pelosi.
“You have cheapened the importance of the very ugly word, impeachment!” he wrote. “By proceeding with your invalid impeachment, you are violating your oaths of office, you are breaking your allegiance to the Constitution, and you are declaring open war on American Democracy.”