ANALYSIS — Call it President Donald Trump’s big impeachment bet. And, in signature fashion, he’s going all in.
The president made clear Friday he plans to use House Democrats’ inquiry to fire up his base as he bids for a second term. He labeled as “phony” the investigation into his Ukraine policy and his requests for its government to investigate top Democrats and said his base is steamed and not simply going to take it.
“There are a lot of angry people out there,” Trump said over Marine One’s especially loud engines during what has become known among the White House press corps as “chopper talk” as he departed Washington for a criminal justice event in South Carolina.
The president chided House Democrats for holding inquiry depositions in private — even though both parties have done so during previous impeachment probes. What’s more, unlike his predecessors Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, there was no independent investigator first appointed to look into allegations of wrongdoing before the House began its work.
He mocked their “secure room in the basement,” referring to the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, where House Democrats and Republicans are hearing from current and former Trump administration officials about just what the president wanted from Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
He floated Romania as another country where he contended former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter was paid handsomely despite possessing “no talent” and no skill” and “no experience.”
As the executive helicopter’s engines seemed to get louder and louder Friday under grey autumn skies in Washington, Trump’s anger at the probe and his resolve to overcome it did as well.
He seemed to dare House Democrats to finish the impeachment job, saying he is confident Senate Republicans will hold the line if there is a trial over removing him from office.
“If we take over the House, which we should because of what they’re doing,” he said of the Democrats, “We have to take over the [House] … because the Democrats don’t have any time to do anything.”
Enter his base, which his senior campaign aides acknowledge he needs to turn out in big numbers in a handful of battleground states to have any chance at winning a second term.
“You know who’s angry about it? The Republican Party is angry about it,” he said of the impeachment inquiry, which he dubbed a Democratic attempt to orchestrate a “takedown” of his party. “Republicans are just outraged.”
In recent days, Trump has begun hitting some of those current and former administration officials who have offered the House impeachment panel testimony describing what they saw as the president’s quid pro quo attempt with Zelenskiy and his government. He refers to them in public comments and tweets as “Never Trumpers,” using a term from the 2016 campaign his surrogates used to describe Republicans who refused to support his candidacy.
One is Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. What Taylor told the House members this week was perhaps the most graphic description yet that Trump ordered a quid pro quo to try to get dirt on Democrats for the 2020 campaign in return for a $400 million military aid package Zelenskiy wanted to defend against further Russian aggression and for a White House meeting he wanted to strengthen his political cache at home.
“[European Union] Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President [Zelenskiy] to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election,” Taylor told the panel in his opening statement. (Burisma Holdings is the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served.)
“Ambassador Sondland also told me that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President [Zelenskiy] was dependent on a public announcement of these investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance,” Taylor told the lawmakers. “He said that President Trump wanted President [Zelenskiy] ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.”
Don’t blame me
Trump contended Friday he “did nothing wrong.” But rather than disputing Taylor’s account with details and specific facts, he opted for a political attack that’s likely to resonate with his political base.
“A ‘Never Trumper’ sometimes is more vicious than a failed Obama candidate or a failed Clinton candidate,” he told reporters. “I’m not a fan of ‘Never Trumpers’ and never will be.”
But how did Taylor get his job in the first place?
As always, don’t blame the president.
“Mike Pompeo. Everyone makes mistakes,” Trump said in an apparent shot at his secretary of State — one of the few Cabinet officials for whom he seems to have genuine respect and fondness.
Of the entire impeachment affair, Trump declared this: “The American people are outraged.”
Not so, say multiple polls released in recent weeks.
The latest Quinnipiac University poll put support for impeachment at 55 percent. And the latest CNN survey put that figure at 50 percent. In both polls, and others with similar results, support for the president’s impeachment — and removal — has increased since this spring.
Election ‘could swing’
But Trump is betting big — or “big league,” as he might say — on other numbers buried inside those polls. One is his approval rating, which continues to hover around 40 percent. Another is what that Quinnipiac survey showed: 88 percent of Republicans oppose the impeachment probe.
In addition to firing up conservatives, the president also is trying to build a narrative around impeachment that keeps some GOP voters in his camp come Election Day by painting Democrats as trying to finish off their party.
He’s also trying to expand his base, some experts say.
“I don’t believe this is just about getting people to the polls. People are so engaged in politics already; so much more than we’ve ever seen,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said earlier this week. “I think it will come down to millions and millions of new voters.”
“We have Democrats winning in every poll, but it could swing. We don’t know what percentage of Republicans will actually defect from Trump,” Greenberg said. “We have Biden, when he was stronger, getting 9 percent of Republicans and Warren getting 6 percent. We have 8 percent saying they would support a third-party candidate. That’s a big number to get.”
Trump was trying his hardest Friday. And he chased his shot of impeachment-bashing with a pint of economic blue-sky talk.
He looked into the cameras dotting the South Lawn driveway and said flatly he should not be impeached because the American economy remains strong.
“We’re going to have,” he said sternly, “another stock market high.”