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Inside Trump's week of rage and retribution

With impeachment behind him, the president's advisers say there is little incentive for him to hold his fire — with more moves to come.
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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump spent his first week post-impeachment asserting his dominance over the Department of Justice in a bid to exact revenge on his enemies and deliver rewards to his allies — the sudden, dramatic escalation of a long-running campaign to solidify his control over legal matters, and remove or sideline the remaining independent voices within his administration.

With the impeachment behind him, Trump's advisers say there is little incentive for him to hold his fire. With few, if any, dissenting voices left in his orbit, aides and advisers have been cheering on his moves, saying he is ridding his administration of “snakes” and fighting back against a corrupt “deep state” — support that has emboldened Trump in the days since his Senate acquittal.

Trump's tumultuous week included a vow to purge his administration of those challenging his policies; a renewal and redoubling of his attacks on his own Justice Department; a revival of long-standing grudges against those involved in the investigation of Russian efforts to contact and influence his 2016 campaign — and the public promise of more such moves to come.

Trump had Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified in the House impeachment hearings, and Vindman's brother, who wasn’t involved in the proceedings, escorted out of the White House less than 48 hours after his impeachment trial ended.

Disregarding the pleas of several GOP senators, Trump also fired Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who also testified before the House.

The retribution drew widespread criticism from Democrats and even Trump's former White House chief of staff John Kelly, but the president only seemed determined to keep dismissing dissenters. “DRAIN THE SWAMP! We want bad people out of our government!” he tweeted.

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The president's actions went beyond personnel moves. He publicly attacked prosecutors over their recommended sentence for his ally Roger Stone, who was found guilty of witness tampering and making false statements, a move that led to a chain of events that spread shock waves around the capital.

Hours after Trump tweeted that Stone's recommended sentence represented “a horrible and very unfair situation,” senior Justice Department officials intervened to have the sentencing recommendation reduced, causing the four prosecutors involved in the case to resign in protest and prompting Democrats to call for Attorney General William Barr's resignation.

The White House then formally withdrew the Treasury Department nomination of Jessie Liu, the former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who had served as the top federal prosecutor overseeing the Stone case, among others, and was scheduled for a confirmation hearing Thursday in which her handling of the case could have come up. The White House did not provide an explanation for why the nomination was pulled.

When pressed by reporters, Trump declined to rule out a pardon for Stone.

The president's ambitions to further solidify his reach and control over the Justice Department came into sharp relief with news that Barr was taking control of legal matters of interest to Trump.

The Friday announcement that the Justice Department was declining to prosecute one of Trump's favorite villains in the Russia investigation, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, came amid news it was also opening an inquiry into the case of the president's former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Trump was blindsided and angered by the decision on McCabe and wasn't given a heads up by the Justice Department, said a person close to the president. That person said Trump believes his allies are unfairly punished for offenses that his adversaries have not been.

Barr chafed at the implication that he was doing the president's bidding, telling ABC that Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case."

But Trump himself ended the week by making it clear he felt free to make such a request. Barr's statement, he tweeted, "doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!”

Trump's defiance seems to have buoyed aides along with the passing of the cloud of impeachment, and with the election still more than eight months away, there is little internal fear of political consequences for the current swirl of rage and retribution, campaign advisers said.

The president's approval rating has hit the highest level of his presidency, at 49 percent, with 61 percent of Americans saying they are better off than they were four years ago — the latter statistic the highest recorded under an incumbent president in an election year — according to numbers released this month by Gallup.

His actions this week are unlikely to alter that dynamic, GOP pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies said. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll released this month, Trump had his strongest numbers since February 2017, right after his inauguration, with a higher approval rating, positivity score and enthusiasm about his candidacy, said McInturff, who conducted the survey along with Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates.

Meanwhile, Trump saw an ideal scenario playing out among his rivals competing for the Democratic nomination with a battle escalating between the establishment and the anti-establishment wings of the party.

“Voters’ economic optimism is helping the president,” McInturff said. “Post-Mueller, post-impeachment, it is hard to imagine what one week of news stories would do to immediately change these numbers.”

As the president looks to complete the purge of those outside the circle of trust, he is bringing back one of his most trusted advisers, Hope Hicks. He is also elevating his former body man John McEntee — who left the White House two years ago under a cloud — to oversee hiring across the administration, putting a loyalist in charge of stamping out dissent, according to a former White House official.

As the team around the president tightened still further to his most loyal staffers, carrying out his bidding with little visible pushback, he told reporters this week that he had learned a lesson from the impeachment — though perhaps not the one some Republican senators had suggested he might.

Trump's takeaway from the process, he said Wednesday, was "that the Democrats are crooked."

"They probably shouldn't have brought impeachment," he said.