The fight is on to sell a divided country on whether Donald Trump deserves to face an impeachment inquiry, with the president and his team aggressively trying to discredit the whistleblower who kicked it off and the House Democrats leading it.
Trump and his surrogates were taken aback immediately after Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday decided emerging details about Trump’s call with incoming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy were so concerning that she had no choice but to launch an impeachment inquiry. Even into Thursday evening, team Trump lacked a clear strategy for countering Democrats’ charges of presidential corruption.
But by that evening, their plans started to emerge. And then by Friday morning, it was becoming clear: They would do what the president does best — go big, go bold and push all their chips to the center of the table.
“The Trump team is going to make the case that the Democrats are crying wolf once again — Mueller report, Kavanaugh, etc. — and that this is nothing more than a partisan exercise to appease a rabid base who just refuses to accept Trump as a legitimate president,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist, referring to former special counsel Robert S. Mueller and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The president and his team are betting more than simply clearing Trump’s name or avoiding a Senate trial. They are looking to use their emerging strategy to seize control of all three federal branches of government, the GOP strategist said.
“The Trump team is betting that if they are successful in making this case to persuadable voters that not only will Trump win reelection in 2020, but the Democrats’ miscalculation will put the House in play as well,” O’Connell said.
The Trump campaign on Friday afternoon announced a cable and digital ad campaign totaling $8 million worth of spots. The ads will focus on their claim that Biden and his son Hunter acted inappropriately while the father was vice president.
“Democrats want to deny Americans the opportunity to vote to re-elect President Trump and people need to know the facts,” Brad Parscale, Trump 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement. “This is a Joe Biden scandal and the Democrats are trying to use it to steal the election.”
The big bet comes as polls show Americans divided on House Democrats’ inquiry.
Forty-nine percent of those polled approve of the inquiry, according to a MaristCollege/NPR survey, with 88 percent of Democrats voicing support while 93 percent of Republicans say they oppose it.
Another poll, from Politico and Morning Consult, suggests public opinion has swung in favor of an impeachment inquiry since details of the Trump-Zelenskiy call began to emerge. That survey, taken Tuesday through Thursday, showed 43 percent of Americans now support an inquiry — up from 39 percent in another version conducted last weekend.
The president on Friday stepped up his attacks on the intelligence community whistleblower who sent a formal, and detailed, complaint to a top government inspector general. Trump has said he does not know whom on his staff is the document’s author, but that is not stopping him from saying and writing things about that person.
“Sounding more and more like the so-called Whistleblower isn’t a Whistleblower at all. In addition, all second hand information that proved to be so inaccurate that there may not have even been somebody else, a leaker or spy, feeding it to him or her?” Trump tweeted Friday, adding: “A partisan operative?”
Sounding more and more like the so-called Whistleblower isn’t a Whistleblower at all. In addition, all second hand information that proved to be so inaccurate that there may not have even been somebody else, a leaker or spy, feeding it to him or her? A partisan operative?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2019
The president’s assessment, however, ignores the fact that the call details in the whistleblower’s complaint very closely match what is laid out in a White House-prepared summary of the Zelenskiy conversation.
Also in team Trump’s political crosshairs: House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat whom Trump just can’t shake, a thorn in his presidential side.
Schiff was the subject of several flame-throwing Friday morning tweets penned by Trump. In one, he accused Schiff of having “totally made up my conversation with Ukraine President and read it to Congress and Millions. He must resign and be investigated.”
Then, Trump got personal, showing again that he is willing to be the dirtiest player in the impeachment game.
“He is a sick man!” the president wrote about Schiff.
Rep. Adam Schiff totally made up my conversation with Ukraine President and read it to Congress and Millions. He must resign and be investigated. He has been doing this for two years. He is a sick man!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2019
The Intelligence Committee chairman fired back, but avoided Trump-style personal attacks.
Writing directly to Trump in a tweet, he alleged that the president “engaged in a shakedown to get election dirt from a foreign country,” adding, “then you tried to cover it up.”
“But you’re right about one thing — your words need no mockery. Your own words and deeds mock themselves,” Schiff wrote, referring to Trump’s objections to an interpretation of the call summary he went through during a Thursday hearing that raised the ire of conservatives. “But most importantly here, they endanger our country.”
By Friday morning, the president’s surrogates were also executing the discredit-all-involved strategy.
“Look at the phraseology, the endnotes and the footnotes,” Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal attorneys, said during an appearance on Fox & Friends. “This wasn’t drafted by this individual. This was written by a law firm.”
Sekulow’s assessment is part of the broader team Trump effort to define the unnamed whistleblower as, in the president words, “biased” and part of a “political hack job.”