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Trump unleashed: what’s next for a president who feels invincible?

In the wake of his acquittal, Democrats have warned, the country may learn the true meaning of Trump unbound

Even recently, Donald Trump has shown some capacity to be constrained.

In September, he released security aid to Ukraine when Congress began asking questions. In October, after awarding his own Florida golf resort a contract to host a G7 summit, Trump reversed course under Republican pressure. The repeated demands he made in November and December for a “full” Senate trial were rebuffed.

But on Wednesday, Trump was acquitted by the Senate on impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, with many Republicans echoing an argument made by Trump’s legal team: that abuse of power is not an impeachable offense.

In the wake of that acquittal, Democrat impeachment managers warned, the country may learn the true meaning of Trump unleashed.

“A man without character or ethical compass will never find his way. He has done it before and he will do it again,” the House intelligence committee chair, Adam Schiff, told the Senate. “What are the odds if he is left in office that he will continue to try to cheat? I will tell you: 100%.”

Warnings during the impeachment trial about how and where Trump might “cheat” focused on the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Any sense that those warnings were misplaced curdled about one hour after the acquittal vote, with an announcement by Senate Republicans that they would open an investigation of Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s perceived 2020 rival Joe Biden.

Two Senate committees will investigate “potential conflicts of interest posed by the business activities of Hunter Biden and his associates during the Obama administration”, their committee chairman wrote in a letter.

The investigations could supply Trump with headlines akin to the Hillary Clinton investigation headlines that helped drag him over the wire in 2016.

Trump surrogates including his sons and campaign manager, meanwhile, eagerly spread the charge this week that the Democrats’ own nomination process was “rigged” following confusion in the Iowa caucuses. The attack on election integrity probably previews what seemed a sure campaign by Trump to brand any 2020 election result he does not like as “fake” – his precise play when it comes to news.

But a focus on how Trump might try to cheat in the 2020 election could reveal a lack of appreciation for the breadth of Trump’s vision and the levers of power in his hands, and conceal the potential downside of dangerous fallout from a Trump unbound.

Already in the weeks leading up to his acquittal, Trump was revisiting and expanding some of the most controversial actions of his early presidency, many of which were blocked or partially blocked by courts.

Last month, Trump diverted an additional $7.2bn of military funding to construction of his border wall, in a rush to demonstrate progress on his signature campaign promise in an election year. Last week, Trump expanded his travel ban to six additional countries, in a move Amnesty International called “offensive and actually harmful to our national security”.

On Tuesday, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said in an interview that Trump “absolutely, 100%,” must continue to lean on Ukraine for a Biden investigation. On Wednesday, Democrats announced the Trump administration was withholding $823m for a clean energy program it unsuccessfully tried to cut.

What’s next for Trump unbound? Many eyes are on the justice department, whose head, the attorney general, William Barr, hastened to claim he had no role in the Ukraine scheme after it was revealed that Trump told the Ukrainian president in a July phone call to coordinate with Barr.

The question is how much resistance remains inside the justice department to Trump’s open desire to investigate his perceived political enemies, and how long that resistance will last. A year after his election, Trump complained that he was “not supposed to be involved with the justice department,” calling it “the saddest thing”.

Trump appears to have now exchanged that bout of self-pity for a can-do attitude about controlling the justice department. Last May, Trump said that talking with Barr about opening an investigation of the Bidens would be “appropriate”.

An announcement by Barr this week of new restrictions on any politically sensitive investigations including into presidential campaigns was either reassuring, because it could narrow the possibility of such investigations, or alarming, because it raised the possibility of such investigations and because it was a reaction to an investigation widely seen as entirely appropriate, of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia

As the continuing Ukraine episode illustrated, Trump’s will to power has driven out public servants who do not share his expansive view of executive influence. The continued loss of those rank-and-file employees could accelerate his takeover – especially if he wins re-election.

On Thursday, one of those lifetime employees whose career fell casualty to Trump’s personal ambitions, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, wrote in the Washington Post about what the events surrounding Trump’s impeachment meant for the national future.

“I had always thought that our institutions would forever protect us against individual transgressors,” Yovanovitch wrote. “But it turns out that our institutions need us as much as we need them; they need the American people to protect them or they will be hollowed out over time, unable to serve and protect our country.”

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