As President Donald Trump wrapped up his swing through New York City on Thursday, he stopped by the luxury restaurant Cipriani to deliver remarks at a high-roller breakfast fundraiser.
Fresh off meetings at the United Nations, the president clearly couldn’t take his mind off a certain anonymous whistleblower whose recently declassified complaint has threatened to blow up his administration. According to an attendee at the breakfast, Trump brandished a printed copy of the memo of his now-infamous Ukraine phone call, flaunting it as he blasted Democratic lawmakers for being mean to him. After waving the document around and receiving cheers from the gathering of Republican donors and supporters, the president boasted about how much money—$13 million in 24 hours—he had raised for his re-election effort, the attendee noted.
It was yet another illustration of how Trump’s big week in New York has been overshadowed and bedeviled by revelations that he and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had urged Ukrainian officials to investigate the son of Joe Biden, the former vice president who remains likely to be Trump’s 2020 election opponent.
Over the past few days, the president has helped raise millions for the 2020 fight and has been lavished with praise by world leaders. And yet he’s remained, through it all, obsessed over the scandal unfolding back in Washington, D.C., as Democratic members of Congress inched closer to impeachment proceedings. According to three people with knowledge of the situation, Trump has compulsively monitored TV and cable news coverage of the Ukraine-related scandal and has repeatedly asked those around him about the whistleblower and rumors that the complainant is hostile to or biased against him.
Through it all, the president’s demeanor and approach to the rapidly unfolding scandal has vacillated between spoiling for a fight and hoping for a détente. Often, it depended on who he was talking to or what setting he found himself in. According to those in attendance at his Thursday breakfast fundraiser, the president was upbeat and fired up, telling donors that he and his political team were ready to punch back hard. In private, however, there was genuine consternation regarding how a brutal impeachment process would affect his legacy and his White House, with much of his staff sharing those same anxieties. Those close to Trump say the president never expected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to back any major impeachment moves—at least not until this week.
Although one senior White House aide said the mood there “is fine,” others said Trump has taken the past week personally, as if Democrats and what his allies call the “deep state” had just crashed his party.
On Tuesday, the president took to Twitter to accuse liberals of deliberately ruining and degrading his “important day” at the U.N. And according to a Los Angeles Times report, Trump also used his time at a private event for U.S. officials at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York on Thursday morning to rage about the whistleblower and whoever supplied that individual with information.
“I want to know who’s the person—who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” Trump said. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason—we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
In video obtained by Bloomberg of the same speech, Trump declared, “We’re at war,” before adding that “these people are sick. They’re sick.”
He went on to tear into those who have expressed concerns over the whistleblower’s complaint, mocking the size of House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff's (D-CA) neck, calling Biden “dumb as a rock,” and dismissing the media coverage of his call with the Ukrainian president as “highly partisan.”
It is unclear what punishments the president has envisioned for those he claims gave the whistleblower information, and the White House did not provide clarification on it when asked. Hours before Trump spoke, the whistleblower complaint detailing allegations that the president pressured the Ukrainian government to interfere in the 2020 election and that White House officials attempted to cover up records of that call had been made public. And shortly thereafter, Joseph Maguire, Trump's acting director of national intelligence, began his congressional testimony, during which he affirmed the complaint as credible.
Already roiled by the publication the previous day of a partial call transcript detailing the pressure he had placed on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, Trump now watched as Maguire fended off accusations that the White House had illegally tried to withhold records of that call and the complaint as well.
And yet, despite having compared the whistleblower and his or her sources to spies who had committed treason, when Trump returned to the White House on Thursday—the senior White House official said—he told his lieutenants that there was no current need to start a “war room” or any special initiative to combat impeachment fever.
A report that Trump was bringing back his former 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to spearhead such an effort was an attempt at “self-aggrandizement” by those officials on the outside, the official added. And the White House, indeed, subsequently denied the reports. In the president’s inner circle, some continued to believe that the rush to embrace impeachment by Democratic leadership amounted to a politically tinged bluff.
“This is all theater,” Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers who worked with Giuliani to defend the president during the Mueller probe, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “Nancy Pelosi didn’t announce anything that hasn’t been going on already,” he added, referring to how House Democrats had weeks ago declared they were launching proceedings simply to decide if they should impeach Trump.
While the White House was attempting to project an all-is-calm demeanor, outside groups were preparing for war. According to a senior Republican National Committee official, the RNC’s in house research team has begun putting together materials to counter-attack House Democrats and a “war room” of its own to deal with Trump impeachment.
As Trumpworld’s strategy for how to handle growing impeachment woes comes together, the president and his staff will have to adjust to a reality in which even less progress is made on his agenda than was before.
Earlier in the week, a senior administration official bemoaned how much of a gigantic pain impeachment proceedings would be for the White House staff to manage. The official said that is, in part, because being impeached would inevitably devastate Trump’s focus, mood, actions, and agenda for the remainder of his first term. And White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham has said that “House Democrats have destroyed any chances of legislative progress for the people of this country by continuing to focus” on impeachment.