As President Donald Trump navigates an impeachment process that is upending his presidency, Republicans in the trenches are offering blunt advice: Shut up about impeachment.
The fear emanating from Capitol Hill and other corners of the GOP is that Trump’s proclivity for going on the attack is harming his long-term political prospects. And as poll numbers continue to show growing support for impeaching him over his encouragement of foreign governments to investigate Joe Biden’s son’s work in Ukraine, Republicans are suggesting that he fine-tune his approach.
“He should issue an ever-increasing stream of policy initiatives that have nothing to do with impeachment,” said Dick Morris, the longtime GOP political consultant who informally advised President Bill Clinton when he too was facing impeachment. “You just have to make sausage every day and put it up on a nail,” he added. “The public will look for other stuff to follow. And that will be what Trump is putting out there.”
Inside the White House, there has been an effort to get Trump to play the role that Clinton did to great effect two decades ago: a president appearing unburdened by the impeachment drama unfolding around him as he focuses on the other tasks of governance. Over the past few weeks, Trump has made speeches touting border security, prescription drug prices, and Medicare Advantage. He has pursued massive alterations to U.S. foreign policy and pushed forward on bilateral trade deals.
But through it all, his attention has drifted back to impeachment with the true nature of his id showing on his Twitter feed, where he has called his Democratic opponents liars and crooks, and encouraged them to be impeached or charged for treason.
“Strategy is dictated by the president and the president very much wants to talk about this [right now],” one White House official said.
That official, along with two others, said on Tuesday that there are currently no plans to change the fight-it-out posture that they’ve adopted. When asked if staying the course was a wise decision given recent polling and other circumstances, one senior Trump administration official simply messaged a pic of the “This Is Fine” meme, featuring an adorable little dog wearing a hat, sipping from a coffee mug, and with a smile and dilated pupils as the room around him or her is engulfed in flames.
“Instead of sending another 15 tweets about how ‘perfect’ his call with the Ukrainian leader was or focusing so much on impeachment, why not just laser-focus your attention on the corruption of Hunter and Joe Biden?” a former White House official asked, rhetorically, also citing poll numbers showing many Americans supporting a Biden probe.
Late last month, President Trump privately assured West Wing officials that there was, for the time being, no need to launch any special initiative or new “war room” to combat the impeachment probe. Instead, the president has opted for more ad hoc measures, like tasking his personal attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow with coordinating messaging and, potentially, a legal strategy against the Bidens and Democratic lawmakers. A hallmark of that approach has been to paint the press as not just biased but inherently dumb, such as when Giuliani was asked by a Daily Beast reporter this week about who financed his work to dig up dirt on the former vice president.
“Quote this,” the Trump attorney replied. “‘Nobody would ask such a stupid question unless they were in the tank from Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.’”
The president’s regular advisers on impeachment remain a tight-knit crew. Neither Morris nor Mark Penn (Clinton’s pollster during his impeachment) indicated they have been contacted by the White House despite both having consulted with Trump or his campaign in the past. And inside that circle, there is a widely held belief that impeachment, while a gigantic nuisance, presents a few political opportunities as well, as illustrated by the Trump campaign’s massive fundraising hauls.
Outside that circle, however, there is a growing belief Trump may be able to do more if he simply did less.
“If I was the president I would ignore the impeachment process as much as you could,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who now leads the pro-Trump group Great America PAC. Told that that seemed unlikely, Rollins replied, “You are asking me what my advice would be, not what advice would be taken.”
Private GOP polling data from swing seats in the House of Representatives that was shared with The Daily Beast underscored the dynamic that Rollins outlined. Support for impeachment stood at roughly between 40-45 percent, with an additional 30-35 percent saying Trump’s actions were inappropriate, though not impeachable. Those numbers, according to the Republican pollster who conducted the surveys, illustrated a debate on a knife’s edge, with the possibility that a flood of voters could end up being persuaded that impeachment was justified or, alternatively, that Democrats were overreaching.
Faced with such uncertainty, elected Republicans have been largely content to see where public opinion goes, with all but the most doggedly pro-Trump members ducking interviews on TV. The GOP counter-messaging on the impeachment push got off to a rough start when party leaders initially struggled on TV to defend Trump. In an appearance that made even Hill Republicans wince, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) went on 60 Minutes on Sep. 28 and disputed what was clearly in the memo of Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president.
There is no “mass panic” at this stage from members of the House GOP on impeachment, a senior House Republican aide told The Daily Beast. And that has been helped, in part, by the White House’s efforts to assuage their fears. There has been regular contact between House Republicans and Trump’s political apparatus, from the Republican National Committee to his 2020 campaign, and lawmakers are getting talking points from Trumpworld—sometimes multiple times daily. Trump’s participation in a members’ call last week to discuss impeachment, moreover, was viewed broadly as a sign that he and the White House were taking the threat seriously.
Not everyone on Capitol Hill is altogether put off by the president’s scorched-earth impeachment focus. “It’s his brand to fight back,” said a House Republican staffer. “That keeps the base locked in, and it keeps the people who were with him in 2016.”
Those who have rushed to Trump’s defense have largely done so on grounds that the impeachment process is procedurally and morally corrupt. Several White House aides and elected Republicans said that they believed forcing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to actually hold a full House vote to begin impeachment proceedings would end up showing that a majority of members did not support doing so, after which—the prediction went—a civil war would break out within the ranks.
“What is she afraid of or waiting for?” one senior White House officials said, “Simple math—are the votes there? Put up or shut up.”
There is no constitutional requirement to hold an impeachment vote and Pelosi has encouraged her deputies, led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), to continue their investigations. How far those investigations can go, however, remains unclear.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, canceled his scheduled deposition before Schiff’s committee the same morning he was to appear. Before his abrupt cancellation, Sondland was expected to be asked if he was aware of a quid-pro-quo arrangement that linked U.S. military aid for Ukraine to an investigation into the Bidens.
Schiff responded to Sondland’s absence with a subpoena and a warning that the stonewalling would be considered part of an article of impeachment, based on obstruction of justice. In the past, such a threat would potentially compel a White House to seek some sort of accommodation. But later in the day, White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to the Hill disputing the very legitimacy of the Democrats’ probe, and arguing that “your ‘Inquiry’ is constitutionally invalid and violates basic due process rights and the separation of powers.”
Morris said he saw no risk in the White House doing so, so long as they did so within the bounds of the law. The outcome of impeachment, he predicted, was already clear, regardless of how cooperative the president was going to be.
“No matter what Trump says or doesn’t say, does or doesn’t do, he is going to get impeached. But the flip side of that is he isn’t going to get removed,” Morris said, reflecting the likelihood that the GOP-controlled Senate would not cast a two-thirds vote if Trump were on trial. “The Republican base will become, in effect, a firing squad to shoot any Republican senator who votes to remove him.”