n public, Trump world is casting the Democratic impeachment inquiry as more white noise.
In private, White House aides and allies say the impeachment momentum is now presenting a serious threat to the rest of President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda, to his negotiating strength with world leaders and to his concentration.
The political furor over the president’s call with the Ukrainian president will put the two pictures in contrast for at least the coming weeks, testing how well the Teflon-encased president can withstand the latest revelations that he tried to pressure a foreign leader to dig up dirt on the son of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, heading into the 2020 campaign.
The Democrats’ decision to launch an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday afternoon raises the stakes of this massive White House gamble, even as the president called any impeachment proceedings “just a continuation of the witch hunt.”
Few in the White House or wider Trump orbit have privately defended Trump’s call with the Ukraine leader in which he reportedly asked eight times about investigating the Biden clan’s business dealings in the country. The incident violates the principle that U.S. officials should never allow or encourage foreign governments to interfere in U.S. elections.
The White House is betting that Trump will ride out this “outrage du jour,” as one senior administration official called it.
But Trump advisers and senior administration aides instead quickly pivot any discussion of the president’s call and ensuing whistleblower complaint to focus on the Bidens — in an effort to turn the attention to a rival much the way the Trump campaign successfully undercut Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016 by constantly bringing the discussion back to her campaign’s hacked emails.
“The president’s strategy on these matters has always been pretty clear: Never back up, and go forward. He learned that from Page Six,” said Newt Gingrich, an informal adviser to Trump who served as House Speaker during Republicans’ impeachment inquiry of President Bill Clinton. “For the average American, this won’t move anything. It just further pins the Democrats into a negative anti-Trump position.”
“My guess is that, in the long run, the White House and campaign think the media eventually and reluctantly will have to take a serious look at Hunter Biden’s business dealings both in China and the Ukraine, and it will be devastating,” Gingrich added.
The White House is betting that Trump will ride out this “outrage du jour,” as one senior administration official called it, and move on just as he has skated through the release of the Mueller report, concerns of late about a possible recession, the Charlottesville uproar, Stormy Daniels, the explosive “Access Hollywood“ tape and dozens of other threats to his presidency.
“Everything is presented as Armageddon. The absolutely worst thing he has ever done! You can excuse the public for believing nothing is that way,” the official added.
“Our country’s doing the best it’s ever done. They’re going to lose the election,” — Donald Trump
White House and Department of Justice lawyers are tuning out the media coverage and focusing on the legal nuances of the whistleblower statute, while the president himself is leading the ensuing political battle.
Like any public relations guru, he has sought to get out ahead of the Ukraine story, set the boundaries of the narrative so that Joe Biden is as squarely in the bullseye as he is and overwhelm Americans with new and often conflicting information so the details change by the hour — and always at his bidding.
“Our country’s doing the best it’s ever done. They’re going to lose the election,” Trump told reporters before a bilateral meeting with the Iraqi president at the United Nations.
“They say it’s a positive for me,” he added about the impeachment proceedings.
By Tuesday afternoon, Trump announced on Twitter that he intended to release a transcript of his call with the Ukraine president on Wednesday. And a senior administration official said the White House also planned to release to Congress by the end of this week the whistleblower complaint and Inspector General documents at the center of the fight.
Both moves suggest the White House is confident it can withstand any fallout from the Ukraine call.
But current and former administration aides believe Trump will view the latest impeachment inquiry as a major blow to his ego — and the proceedings will likely distract him, cloud all of his meetings and halt any agenda for this fall including the passage of a major trade bill heading into an election year.
“It would mean USMCA probably doesn’t get done. It would declare war on whatever legislative agenda they still have,” said one former administration official.
That may not matter for Trump’s political standing or his popularity with his base, which has remained fairly constant during his presidency even some of its most controversial moments.
“People have made up their minds on Trump. It would take a momentous event to change enough minds to alter his job approval rating away from the average of 43 or 44 percent,” said Whit Ayres, founder and president of North Star Opinion Research, a Republican polling firm. “We’re so polarized and in our tribes that people will look through their current lens and determine either the president did something wrong, or Joe Biden did something wrong. The facts won’t be particularly relevant.”
The White House press office framed the impeachment inquiry as the Democrats’ effort to “continue to weaponize politics.”
“President Trump is working hard on behalf of our country here in New York City while they continue to scream the word impeachment. Nothing new here,” said Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary and communications director.
And the president’s 2020 campaign quickly rushed to motivate Trump voters and raise money from the fight. “Democrats can’t beat President Trump on his policies or his stellar record of accomplishment, so they’re trying to turn a Joe Biden scandal into a Trump problem,” Brad Parscale, the Trump 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement. “The misguided Democrat impeachment strategy is meant to appease their rabid, extreme, leftist base, but will only serve to embolden and energize President Trump’s supporters and create a landslide victory for the President.”
Still, the impeachment proceedings could lead to other revelations that are even more distracting for Trump and the GOP agenda.
While the Democrats pushed ahead with the impeachment inquiry, the reaction in the Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday was more muted and mixed.
“It will be similar to the Mueller report. Remember how much time we spent on that? It’s got all the same characteristics,” said Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana. “To me, it’s amazing how you keep pushing a dynamic like that, and I think clearly, in this case, it’s backfired, and its focused attention on Biden and his son.”
Both Republican Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski expressed the need for additional information, with Romney calling the release of the transcript a helpful way to clarify the president’s intentions. “It would be much more helpful if we can just get the full and honest story out there,” Murkowski told POLITICO. There’s a lot of speculation about what was really said. So, hard to say until we see what’s real.”
But for Senate Democrats, the House’s new impeachment inquiry seemed justified.
“This is very serious. I’m not sure [Trump] understands how serious this is,” said Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who supports impeachment. “I’m not sure intellectually, he personally understands how serious this is when you’re holding up military assistance passed by Congress in order to extort a political action of a leader in a foreign country.”