WASHINGTON — When the history books are written about this day, they will surely record it as the culmination of a monumental three-year political battle that tested American democracy and delivered victory to an enraged and enraging president over his relentless foes. But they will not record it as the end of the struggle.
President Trump’s acquittal on Wednesday after a fiery three-week Senate impeachment trial provided him a moment of triumph, a sense of validation, a shot of momentum — anything but the finality that he might want. The president who vowed to bring an end to endless wars overseas remains at the center of an endless war at home, one that now moves to the campaign trail and will not be resolved until November at the earliest.
Rather than reaching out to bind the wounds, as President Bill Clinton did after his own Senate impeachment trial in 1999, Mr. Trump made clear minutes after the final roll call that he planned to go on the offensive. He opted to wait until Thursday to make a public appearance, on the advice of aides concerned about complicating the lives of Republicans who cast tough votes for him, but his Twitter feed and staff statements taunted his opponents and boasted of the “Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!”
Nor was the other side ready to surrender.
Deflated by the nearly party-line vote, House Democrats took heart in winning over one Republican, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, and quickly signaled that they would continue their investigations into the president. Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was now “likely” to subpoena John R. Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, whose offer to testify in the Senate was rejected by the Republican majority.
The prospect of continuing conflict over the president’s effort to coerce Ukraine into helping him against his domestic rivals will presumably shape the national debate that is coming into focus as the Democrats begin voting to decide who will challenge Mr. Trump in the general election this fall.
“It’s a referendum on whether we remain a constitutional republic,” Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, said in an interview. “We can easily survive four years of this,” he added, but “it’s a very different landscape if he’s re-elected after this. It illuminates what’s at stake in the election.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Mr. Trump’s strongest Republican allies, agreed that rather than being settled by the vote on Wednesday, the battle now moved to the campaign trail. “The only way this is going to end permanently is for the president to get re-elected,” Mr. Graham said on the floor, “and he will.”
For the president, that may be perfectly fine. The self-described counterpuncher appears eager to prosecute his case against his prosecutors. Even before the Senate vote, he tweeted or retweeted a barrage of messages attacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi for ripping up her copy of his State of the Union address (without mentioning that he had refused to shake her hand). After the verdict, he quickly turned his fire to Mr. Romney, posting an attack video mocking the senator.
“The vote today will open the floodgate for Trump to go after those who have wronged him in this process,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., who has broken with Mr. Trump. “The so-called hate list which he carries around will be expanded, and efforts to hurt those on the list will begin. He will have no fear, not that he ever had much when going after his enemies.”
Conciliation and acknowledging mistakes are not in his nature. Gwenda Blair, a biographer of the Trump family, pointed to the president’s mentor, Roy Cohn. “Never say you’re wrong, always claim victory, get in people’s face, repeat; if they accuse you of something, throw it back at them, double down, triple down,” she said. “He’s taken Roy Cohn’s mantra of total and complete belligerence and aggression not just to the next level but several levels past that.”
While Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said this week that she believed Mr. Trump had learned from the experiences that had prompted his impeachment and would recalibrate his actions in office accordingly, some who have studied him said that would not be in keeping with the president’s history.
“I doubt he will be chastened by the impeachment or the trial,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College. “In fact, he will probably feel, unlike Susan Collins suggests, that he has open season now to do anything he wants because no one will rein him in for the next eight months.”
In decisively winning acquittal, Mr. Trump demonstrated a command of his Republican Party that would have been almost unthinkable when he came into office. While Mr. Romney generated much attention for his vote to convict, the fact that he was the only Republican to break with Mr. Trump was a powerful affirmation of the president’s success at building brand loyalty in the party.
By not backing down, not even an inch, he forced Republicans to choose between him and his critics, and they almost universally chose him.
From Mr. Trump’s point of view, the trial was simply the latest chapter in a campaign by his enemies to nullify his election that started before he even took office. He sees many of the developments of the last three years through that lens. The special counsel investigation into Russian election interference, the various congressional inquiries, the demands for his tax returns, the prosecution of so many of his former aides and associates all fit together in what he considers a scorched-earth effort to find something, anything, to take him down.
But some of his allies said the president understands that the conflict is only part of the calculation over whether he will win a second term, which is why he made no mention of impeachment during his State of the Union address this week even though it almost certainly absorbed him for most of the other 22 and a half hours that day. Instead, he focused the speech on promoting his economic record, his military spending, his crackdown on immigration and his appointment of conservative judges.
“Some of what the president does is theater, which he revels in,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a friend of Mr. Trump’s. “But he knows that the voters will really judge him on results, and that’s why he’s more bottom-line focused than people think.”
For Mr. Trump and his opponents, that bottom line is coming in the form of another up-or-down vote in 272 days. At that point, it will be clear whether it will provide the ending in the history book or just another page to turn.