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Politics

Trump, caught off guard, struggles to fight impeachment storm

President Trump
President Trump returns to the White House on Thursday from the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

As soon as President Trump learned he was facing an impeachment investigation on Tuesday, he upended his meetings with world leaders near the United Nations and rushed to his soaring skyscraper a few blocks away in midtown Manhattan.

Then, back in his penthouse at Trump Tower, he sought solace at his favorite place — in front of a TV with his Twitter account in hand.

For the record:
7:26 AM, Sep. 28, 2019 An earlier version of this story stated McConnell made a comment about impeachment on Friday. His comment was made months ago.

By Friday, as the crisis metastasized with cascading disclosures about Trump’s requests for Ukrainian authorities to investigate his political foes, and allegations that the White House tried to “lock down” the evidence, the president was still grasping for a strategic response. Other than issuing a slew of angry tweets, he stayed out of the public eye until an evening event with Hispanic supporters in the East Room.

One administration official described the president as “shell shocked” by the sudden political gut punch even as he insists the impeachment fight will help him win reelection next year by rallying his base and angering independents.

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“I think he’s badly wounded right now,” said a Trump campaign advisor who is in frequent contact with the president, one of several aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions. “I’m suddenly very worried about 2020.”

A senior White House advisor, Kellyanne Conway, said Trump didn’t need the kind of “war room” that President Clinton deployed while battling impeachment two decades ago.

The White House released notes of a phone call showing that President Trump not only asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, he also urged the foreign leader to look into CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm that did work for the Democrats in the 2016 election. The House has opened an impeachment inquiry into Trump.

“He’s the most battle-tested person I’ve ever met,” she said. “Why do we need an impeachment war room when the other people should have the burden of showing why they’re impeaching the president?”

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The Trump campaign sought to leverage the firestorm, announced a rare $10-million television ad buy to attack former Vice President Joe Biden, and use the impeachment inquiry to make the case that Democrats and the media are bent on ousting Trump by any means.

“They lost the election. Now they want to steal this one. Don’t let them,” the narrator says.

Trump has struggled to regain his footing after being blindsided by the swiftness of the scandal only months after he survived a grueling special counsel investigation into whether his campaign had improperly colluded with Russia during the 2016 election.

The final report by Robert S. Mueller III, released in April, concluded that Trump’s aides had welcomed Russia’s help but did not conspire with Moscow.

President Trump repeatedly told Ukraine’s president that Atty. Gen. William Barr would help investigate Joe Biden, putting the nation’s top law enforcement official squarely into the impeachment inquiry.

“I thought we had won,” Trump, sounding incredulous, said at a news conference Wednesday. “I thought it was dead.”

Aides say Trump is increasingly aware that he faces a more serious challenge now, and arguably a more formidable adversary, in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who is leading the impeachment fight.

At Trump campaign headquarters just outside Washington, aides are considering revving up the president’s fall rally schedule, taking his defense to cheering supporters, where he is likely to feel more comfortable and powerful.

There will be less to do in Washington anyway. Trump, who has also sought to portray Democrats as wholly consumed with ousting him from office, has warned that the impeachment inquiry could kill any thin hopes for bipartisan legislation on guns, immigration or other key concerns before the 2020 elections.

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The White House, and other government agencies caught up in the impeachment inquiry, will be consumed in gathering records and documents that Congress is likely to demand for the investigation.

Here’s a look at some of the events that led up to House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry and what has happened since the formal announcement.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and the other chairmen of three House committees subpoenaed Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Friday, for example, over his failure to produce documents related to Ukraine. They also scheduled depositions for five State Department officials who were cited in a whistleblower complaint released Thursday — Ambassadors Marie “Masha” Yovanovitch, Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent and Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl.

Oversight committees have been demanding documents since January, when Democrats took over the House, but the administration rebuffed most of those requests. That becomes harder under the legal weight of an impeachment investigation.

Although Republican support in Congress appears solid, that firewall could falter if damaging new revelations emerge or if lawmakers find public support crumbling back in their districts. Congress went on recess Friday for two weeks and some lawmakers planned to hold town halls to gauge constituents’ views on impeachment.

“The superficial support for this guy is wearing thin,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who served briefly as White House communications director before becoming one of Trump’s most outspoken critics.

Ty Cobb, the former White House lawyer who led the president’s legal response to the Russia investigation for nearly a year, said Trump will get good legal advice even though several key attorneys moved on after the Russia investigation ended.

President Trump slammed the whistleblower who first warned that the president was trying to strong-arm a foreign leader for personal gain as “a spy,” and suggested he or she had committed treason.

“They’ve got some very good lawyers,” Cobb said. The question, he added, is whether Trump “will listen and the extent to which he will be helpful or harmful to his cause.”

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During the Russia investigation, Trump and his allies sought to paint Mueller’s team as Democrats engaged in a partisan witch hunt.

Trump has returned to that playbook, blasting the unnamed whistleblower complaint at the center of the impeachment probe as a “partisan hack job” even though it accurately reflected Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with Ukraine’s president. The Aug. 12 complaint was released Thursday, a day after the White House had put out its account of the phone call.

During the 22-month Mueller investigation, Trump grew increasingly brazen, denouncing the former FBI director as biased and unfair. Mueller, a by-the-books prosecutor who avoided discussing ongoing cases, never publicly responded.

Pelosi, by contrast, is a veteran politician, experienced in intelligence investigations and in unifying a large and often fractious group of lawmakers. Since Trump took office in 2017, she has confronted the president’s outbursts with steely displays of her power to block his legislation or use her oversight authority.

As the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry enters an aggressive new phase, Burbank’s Rep. Adam Schiff finds himself once again in a key role.

In public appearances, Pelosi has appeared almost somber, avoiding the enthusiasm that some House Democrats have shown about the possibility of impeaching Trump.

“This is a very sad time for our country,” Pelosi said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “An impeachment of a president is as serious as our congressional responsibilities can be apart from declaring war or something.”

For his part, Trump fired off 11 morning tweets, raging about “Liddle’ Adam Schiff,” maintaining again that his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect” and slamming the anonymous whistleblower who first reported that Trump was trying to solicit a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election.

“Sounding more and more like the so-called Whistleblower isn’t a Whistleblower at all,” Trump tweeted. “In addition, all second hand information that proved to be so inaccurate that there may not have even been somebody else, a leaker or spy, feeding it to him or her? A partisan operative?”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said months ago that if the House does vote for impeachment, the Senate “has no choice” but to hold a trial to decide whether to remove Trump from office. There’s no sign that the GOP-controlled Senate, where 67 votes are required to remove the president from office, is about to turn on Trump.

Mr. President, she told him, ‘undo it.’ With those two words, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered Trump one last chance to avoid becoming only the fourth president in office to face impeachment proceedings.

“At this point, [Trump] could be caught walking out of a Federal Reserve bank with two giant sacks of money in his hands and no Republican would vote to impeach him for grand larceny,” said a senior Senate GOP aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Our voters want two things from their congressmen: [dumping] on the media and blindly defending the president,” the aide added. “That’s what being a Republican has come to.”


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