President Trump, his advisers, and his most fervent media allies have grown increasingly irritated with Senate Republicans for failing to counterprogram the Democratic-led House impeachment inquiry.
In the weeks since the now-infamous whistleblower complaint came to light—and as various witnesses have since testified behind closed doors about the administration’s efforts in Ukraine to dig up dirt on political opponents—the president’s close advisers have pushed for the Senate GOP to hold hearings and call witnesses of their own in a broader effort to put Democrats on the defensive.
According to those who’ve spoken with him recently, Trump remains confident that the Senate, still under Republican Party control, would readily acquit him if the House passed articles of impeachment. But it’s the damage they will incur getting there that has the president and his team worried.
That’s where, they believe, his top allies should come in to run interference. In particular, there is growing frustration that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not yet called hearings into the issues that sparked Trump’s interest in Ukraine: Joe Biden’s alleged and unfounded attempts to aid a business whose board his son sat on as well as a conspiracy theory that links Ukraine with 2016 election meddling.
"Senate Republicans don't have to defend Trump on everything, they just have to do their jobs,” said one senior Trump operative. “Part of that is holding hearings, calling witnesses, and forcing testimony on the misdeeds we already know about—Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 election against Trump, the Clinton campaign paying foreign sources to fabricate a dossier against Trump, the politically driven Kavanaugh smear campaign, the son of the former vice president influence-trading overseas, Adam Schiff trying to obtain dirt on Trump from the Ukrainian embassy, and more. What good is controlling half of Congress if Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff get to run the whole show anyway?"
The complaints have come from the top down. One source who spoke to Trump in the past two weeks said that the president wondered aloud why Republican lawmakers couldn’t be more like people such as Tom Fitton—the Judicial Watch president who Trump regularly watches on Fox and often excitedly tweets about—when defending him against the impeachment inquiry. And in public, Trump has increasingly let his dissatisfaction with Republican Senate leadership and others be known.
“Republicans have to get tougher and fight,” the president said at a cabinet meeting at the White House on Monday. “We have some that are great fighters, but they have to get tougher and fight because the Democrats are trying to hurt the Republican Party for the election.”
For all the grumbling, however, the White House has appeared to have done very little to chart out a hearing process of their own. Graham has floated the idea of calling Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to testify. But those plans appear far off—if not dead entirely—as Giuliani has receded from the spotlight.
Graham did not return a request for comment. But one senior Senate aide said that there has been little that the White House has offered that has given members there either direction or confidence.
“As far as I know, there are no emissaries on the Hill telling us what to say on this,” said the senior Senate GOP aide. “I'm not going to rule out any work on our side in terms of looking into other things that are sort of adjacent to the investigations going on. But there is just not a lot of appetite among Senate Republicans. They are not very enthusiastic about defending the indefensible on this stuff.”
Evidence of the divide between the White House and Senate GOPers has emerged in recent days, with allies of the former—including the president’s son Don Jr.—taking to Twitter to berate Republican lawmakers for not doing more, and members of the latter gently distancing themselves from the president on a range of fronts.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he did not “recall any conversation with the president,” in which he told Trump that his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was, in fact, “perfect.”
The Zelensky call is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry launched to determine if Trump threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless that government investigated Biden. And Trump has repeatedly said that McConnell privately told him that nothing wrong was uttered.
McConnell’s remarks were noticed among other Hill Republicans, who have watched warily over the last few weeks as the White House has struggled to mount a defense to the damaging allegations emerging from the House proceedings. And they were widely interpreted as a message to the president that—for all his demands that the Senate get more aggressive in rallying to his side—he had to come up with a plan to defend himself first.
“It’s amazing that people are attacking Senate Rs,” texted one top Senate GOP aide. “The White House has literally no pushback to what the House is doing. No war room, nothing.”
With little counterprogramming being planned currently by Senate Republicans, much of the White House’s focus has drifted to other investigations that could shift the focus away from Trump. In particular, there is hope that a Department of Justice probe into the origins of the 2016 investigation into Trump and Russian electoral interference could turn up findings problematic for several prominent Democrats, chief among them Obama’s former CIA Director John Brennan.
“It seems [prosecutor John] Durham is working on this, and I suppose following his report, further action could be taken as warranted,” said one senior White House official.
But not everyone in Trump’s orbit is willing to wait patiently for Durham’s findings. Indeed, some of Trump’s favorite media sycophants have begun letting it be known that they expect more from the president’s reliable fellow travelers on the Hill.
“Think about this, nothing is happening in the U.S. Senate… nothing!” Lou Dobbs, a Fox Business host and top informal Trump adviser, said on his show Monday evening. As it were, Dobbs was talking to Fitton at the time. “For nine months, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee [Lindsey Graham] has not lifted a finger to help this president. He blathers little soundbites one side or another for or against the president every week, it seems, but has done nothing for the American people or truth, justice, and the American way.”
“He is an embarrassment to the government of this country and its traditions,” Dobbs added for good measure.
Tucker Carlson, another pro-Trump Fox personality who has privately advised the president on foreign policy, also took aim at Graham on Monday night. Speaking with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Carlson grumbled that Graham wasn’t upholding his promise to get to the bottom of whether or not “top DOJ officials plotted a bureaucratic coup to overthrow the elected president.”
Paul, one of the president’s most vocal defenders on Capitol Hill these days, suggested that Graham and other Republican senators were more loyal to the so-called Deep State than to Trump, adding that the South Carolina senator may want the Deep State to “maintain their power and maintain the intelligence community’s enormous grip.”