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Strain, Scrutiny, Settling Scores: The Upshot Of A Packed Political Week

President Trump walks to the Oval Office of the White House on Friday.
Patrick Semansky
President Trump walks to the Oval Office of the White House on Friday.

Aside from times of genuine national crisis, it is hard to recall a week with as many events of political significance as the one we have all just witnessed.

As a kickoff for the re-election year of a president, it could scarcely have been more fraught. And as always, our perception of events was subject to our differing political perspectives.

When high-impact moments come in such rapid succession, it is all too easy to lose track of meaningful developments. We may all look back on early February and wonder at how much we missed while we were trying to focus on so many things at once.

But by week's end, President Trump had much to celebrate: acquittal in his impeachment trial, more good news on the economy and an unforced error on the part of the opposition party, which flubbed the first contest in its process of nominating Trump's November challenger.

Of course, in the same time frame, the president had also disappointed those in his own party who had hoped the impeachment struggle would chasten him. Instead of moderating his rhetoric or taking the high road, the president immediately set about settling scores.

He ripped into critics at a prayer breakfast and at a celebratory gathering at the White House, and he closed the week by firing two of the witnesses against him in last fall's pre-impeachment hearings — Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (and his brother) from the National Security Council staff.

The week had begun with the Senate hearing closing arguments in Trump's impeachment trial, just the third trial of a U.S. president in our national history. It was a big story, but it would soon be swallowed up in subsequent news, a sequence that would be repeated throughout the week.

Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, addresses the media about the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses on Friday in Des Moines.
Steve Pope / Getty Images
Getty Images
Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, addresses the media about the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses on Friday in Des Moines.

That night, much of the nation watched and waited while the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) struggled to tabulate results in the state's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. The night ended without a winner. And that was an understatement.

On Tuesday the debacle in Des Moines continued as the IDP was unable to sort out all the problems caused by a new phone app, which some precinct volunteers had not downloaded prior to caucus night. Training and testing had been minimal, at best, and telephone lines used for back-up had quickly overloaded.

On Tuesday night we witnessed an unforgettable version of the president's annual State of the Union report, which for more than 70 years has been a widely viewed television event.But long before it went on the tube, the State of the Union was known for bringing together Washington's power players in an atmosphere of civility and shared respect.

The importance of reaching TV viewers has long since eclipsed that of pleasing members of Congress and other grandees who watch the speech in the House chamber. But on this occasion, Trump played to his strengths as a reality-TV star, staging a show sure to inspire his supporters, enrage his critics, and engage a broad sweep of the national audience.

The president surprised a Philadelphia grade-school girl with a scholarship to the "school of her choice," surprised a military family with the return of their husband and father, and surprised a 100-year-old veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen with a special salute from his great-grandson. But he also sowed salt in political wounds by awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to ailing right-wing radio legend Rush Limbaugh (with the First Lady fastening it around Limbaugh's neck in the gallery above).

President Trump finishes his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. At the end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of the speech.
Pool / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Trump finishes his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. At the end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of the speech.

Democrats were not just restive as they sat in the chamber, they were downright rebellious. When the president spoke of prescription drug prices, a group of Democrats stood and chanted "H.R. 3, H.R. 3" – a reference to a bill on that subject that has languished in the Senate since the House passed it last year.

Positioned behind the president, Vice President Mike Pence often applauded and even stood to applaud. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat beside him unmoved. She had offered her hand to Trump when he arrived, but he had not taken it. She had introduced him without the ritual reference to it being her "high privilege and distinct honor" to do so. Throughout the speech, she could be seen to be shuffling papers or glancing around in apparent exasperation. When the president had finished, she stood and tore her ceremonial copy in half.

Asked about it later, she said the president "shredded the truth" so she "shredded the speech."

On Wednesday, the five-month drama of Trump's impeachment came to an end in the Senate with neither article receiving even half the votes in the chamber. As removal would have required 67 votes, there had never been any real doubt of Trump's eventual acquittal. Democratic hopes of prying loose a substantial fraction of the Republican majority had been dashed when the Senate voted the previous Friday not to call witnesses or consider new evidence.

Nonetheless, the finality of Wednesday's vote reverberated with historic importance. Much was made of an emotional speech from Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who cast the only Republican vote to remove Trump from office. He was the first senator of either party in American history to vote to remove an impeached president of his own party.

Romney's was also the only break from party in the chamber, as all 45 Democrats and both independents voted for Trump's removal.

The president responded within minutes by tweeting a meme showing yard signs for Trump 2020 and 2024 and 2028 and 2032 and beyond.

The next day he would accuse Romney of using religion"as a crutch."

On Thursday, the fallout continued from Iowa, the State of the Union and the impeachment vote. We learned that in addition to all their other travails, the Iowa Democrats had been trolled by disrupters calling the backup telephone number intended for reporting results. While the volume of legitimate calls might have been enough to jam the lines, the impact of the trolls served to emphasize the vulnerability of the entire enterprise. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called for a recanvassing of the vote. Iowa resisted. Republicans exulted in the show of ineptitude.

Meanwhile, the president had made news at the annual Capitol Hill Prayer Breakfast by wading into the impeachment controversy. He waved a copy of a newspaper with an enormous "ACQUITTED" headline and assailed his critics, including Romney and Pelosi. He said Romney had no right to cloak his vote in his religious faith, and said he doubted that Pelosi really prayed for him (as she has on occasion said she did). Pelosi was sitting a few feet away at the time.

In a more typical week in a more normal time, this incident might have dominated news for a day or so. But on this Thursday, it was swiftly superseded. The president gathered White House staff, supporters from Congress and administration figures in the East Room of the White House. He told them and the cameras that the various probes of his actions had been terribly unfair to him – beginning even before he was elected. He called the impeachment managers "vicious" and "evil" and aimed another broadside at Pelosi (who was not present).

On Friday, as uncertainties still plagued the counting in Iowa, the New York Times reported it had found problems heretofore unreported. The Associated Press, which had been saying all week it was "too early to call" a winner, had packed it in Thursday night and said a winner could not be determined. By then, it may have been too late to care.

Except that, while the Iowa winner was not clear, the losers were rather apparent. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg seemed locked in a struggle at the top, but Sen, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was a disappointing third and former Vice President Joe Biden a disastrous fourth – barely ahead of Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

So, even in its moment of frustration and futility, Iowa had once again managed to "shake up" the expectations of prominent candidates. That was clear on Friday night, when the week of Big Stories concluded with the ABC-WMUR-Apple News debate in Manchester, N.H.

The latest debate featured seven qualifying candidates: Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. (Another debate on Feb. 19 in Nevada is expected to include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.)

The New Hampshire debate had Buttigieg front and center, subject to the slings of arrows directed at any new front-runner – based on his rising standing in New Hampshire polls and his surprise showing in Iowa.

Whether Iowa will still have this kind of impact in 2024 is problematic, as its front-of-the-line position is once again under pressure and its vote tallying fiasco has been a major embarrassment to the candidates and the national party.

There may not be much Iowa can do about its unrepresentative demographics (more than 90% Anglo white). But it may be persuaded to modify or abandon the precinct caucus format it has used since 1972. This is the third time in as many cycles that one party or the other has had a problem determining the Iowa caucuses' statewide winner.

If so, the Iowa Caucus will join the State of the Union address and the Senate's right to try cases of impeachment as institutions we will not see in quite the same way after this particular "week that was."

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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