Donald Trump’s presidency may be resting on the whims of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate, but the White House isn’t sweating it.
Despite a whirlwind few days, in which it was revealed that President Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton had copped to there being a quid pro quo to dig up dirt on his domestic political opponents, Republican congressional sources say the White House has remained relatively hands-off in trying to keep the party in line.
With lawmakers considering whether to call additional witnesses—including Bolton—there has been modest directive offered by White House aides about how to handle such a situation beyond talking points that could be deployed. The president has made his wishes known through his favorite medium—Twitter—and his legal team has argued against additional witnesses before the chamber. Additional signals have been public and not particular subtle, such as when Trump thanked senators attending a Wednesday trade deal signing. "Maybe,” the president joked, “I’m being just nice to them because I want their vote.”
But beyond that, aides say, the White House has not felt compelled to use all the carrots and sticks at its disposal.
“I don’t think there has been much lobbying or heavy lifting and there has certainly been no efforts to quote, unquote, keep people in line,” said one senior Republican Senate aide.
The White House has shown, in the past, that it is willing to aggressively lobby the Hill on matters directly tied to the president’s agenda. That they’ve adopted a different approach to this critical juncture of impeachment illustrates the hold that Trump believes he has over his party and a strategic assessment that—in certain cases—such outreach may prove unnecessary or counterproductive.
It’s a strategy that the president’s team has been practicing for weeks, as The Washington Post reported. And it’s one they continue to believe will result in acquittal. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a confidant of the president’s and a lead defender of his during the impeachment trial, said Wednesday that Trump has had little contact with the Republicans who are weighing the fate of his presidency—a stark departure from the House process, when the White House was actively wooing GOP lawmakers with presidential face-time and other perks to shore up their standing.
“It’s a different process, obviously,” Meadows told The Daily Beast. “You have a trial going on now, on the House side it was an investigation.”
A senior member of the Senate GOP, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), said a hands-off approach was probably the right way to go.
“There are plenty of opportunities for members to reach out if they wanted to, if they had advice or thoughts, and I imagine some of that's happened just during the time the President's team has been here,” he said.
Even Senate Democrats that the White House is hoping to lure to make an acquittal vote bipartisan say they’ve heard little, if anything at all, from the president. ”He hasn't heard from the president or anyone else,” said a spokesman for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who on Wednesday showed he’d be amenable to some Republican demands by expressing support for calling Hunter Biden as a witness. “He hasn't talked to the president in a while.”
People familiar with Team Trump’s strategy say that White House officials have opted away from a heavy-handed approach not simply because they are confident that Republicans already know how Trump would react if they did not vote to acquit. There is also a belief that some Republican lawmakers would prefer to have a bit of distance from the president, if only to keep up the appearance of impartiality; and there’s fear that any effort to push GOP fence-sitters like Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) on the constructs of the trial would have the opposite effect.
Asked if a personal pitch from Trump to these senators could backfire, Meadows demurred. But he did say, “I don’t see that as something that he would do, and I don’t see if it’s something that he’s even contemplating.”
Mainly, however, there is an expectation inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) can do much of the heavy lifting without the president’s help.
“The thinking is to let Cocaine Mitch do his thing and get his people in line,” said a source close to the White House, using a nickname coined by a former opponent of McConnell that the senior senator from Kentucky has since adopted.
All of which is not to say the White House has done nothing. Tony Sayegh, a senior communications official in the Trump White House, has helmed a weekly Senate GOP communicators meeting on Capitol Hill on Mondays. And following The New York Times’ reporting on Bolton’s forthcoming book, the president’s team sprung into action to say all was well.
“The facts remain unchanged,” Sayegh told the gathering in his Monday meeting, according to a source who was in the room—a line that Senate Republicans dutifully repeated later in the day and week, much to the pleasure of Trump’s senior staffers in the West Wing.
By mid-Monday, the Trump White House had blasted out a list of talking points to surrogates and media allies decrying the Bolton-related “Leaks,” according to a message obtained by The Daily Beast. In its messaging, Team Trump encouraged surrogates to compare the ongoing situation to what occurred during the confirmation hearings for Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of attempted rape, and in doing so again stresses that the juicy tell-all changes nothing in Democrats’ favor.
“These selective leaks do not change the actual evidence and are being done purely to influence the Senate, the same playbook we saw during the Kavanaugh hearings,” reads one of the talkers.
Despite the Bolton bombshells, the GOP line on witnesses has held. However, with the unpublished manuscript still looming and new information coming out every day, Trump and his allies are not out of the woods yet.
The latest example of such came Wednesday morning when House Foreign Relations Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) released a statement about a call he’d had with Bolton on Sept. 19.
“Ambassador Bolton suggested to me—unprompted—that the committee look into the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch,” Engel’s statement read. “He strongly implied that something improper had occurred around her removal as our top diplomat in Kyiv.”
Engel had kept the conversation private because he and Bolton have a longstanding relationship. Indeed, the only reason he chose to come forward now, a Democratic aide said, was Trump’s repeated assertion that Bolton never spoke out following his departure from the White House—an assertion Engel believed to be wrong. He did not speak to Bolton before releasing the statement.