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Politics

Trump strategy switches from ‘no quid pro quo’ to quid pro no problem

Essential Politics

When the allegations first hit, two weeks ago, that he had asked the president of Ukraine to help his reelection campaign by investigating Joe Biden and his family, President Trump was caught off guard and struggled to find a strategy.

His first defense — that he had offered “no quid pro quo” — fared poorly in light of the flood of emerging evidence that he had done exactly that and had held up military aid important to Ukraine to put pressure on Voldymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader, to knuckle under.

By Thursday, Trump made clear he was shifting to a very different line: “So what?”

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EMBRACING THE QUID PRO QUO

Trump unveiled the new approach in dramatic fashion, declaring on the White House South Lawn that he wanted China to investigate Biden, too, and explicitly linking that request to the possibility of settling the trade battle between the two countries.

“China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” he said, adding, “I have a lot of options on China, but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power,” as Noah Bierman, Sarah Wire and Alexa Díaz reported.

Later that day, after returning from a campaign visit to Florida, he made the argument even more explicit, saying on Twitter that “as the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!”

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The new stance has the advantage for Trump of being immune to adverse evidence. If he has an “absolute right” to investigate anything he defines for himself as “corruption” and can solicit other nations’ help as he chooses, then no amount of transcribed conversations or files of text messages matters.

That line closely echoes Richard Nixon’s famous assertion: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Nixon made his defense of bugging, wiretapping and burglary after the fact, in his interviews with David Frost in 1977, three years after he was forced from office for those acts and others. Trump clearly hopes that a similarly sweeping defense will work to preempt such a fate for him.

He may well be right.

Many Democrats will see his assertion of unlimited discretion to put U.S. foreign policy to use advancing his personal and political needs as an impeachable abuse of power all by itself. But Trump already knows he stands little chance of avoiding impeachment by the House. His strategy, like so much in his presidency, doesn’t aim to persuade the middle, but to hold the loyalty of his base — in this case, the 34 Republican senators he needs to win acquittal in the Senate.

Granted, the new line saws off a limb on which a number of Republicans had sought shelter, but that has seldom bothered Trump: As he has made clear throughout his tenure, those who defend him do so at their own peril.

As Janet Hook wrote, the prospect of a Senate vote has already created heartache for some Republican senators,notably the four up for reelection next year in swing states. But Trump doesn’t need them all. With 53 Republicans in the chamber, he can afford to lose a few if necessary so long as he can force the rest to dance to his tune.

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Can he?

Quite likely. The polls that show support for impeachment rising in the past two weeks also show partisans on both sides starting to harden their positions, even as Trump has begun using impeachment in his fundraising.

As a new YouGov poll for the Huffington Post found this week, 53% of registered voters find the allegations against Trump “credible,” compared with only 22% who do not. Even among Republicans, the split is close, 31% who find the allegations credible to 35% who don’t.

But 68% of Republicans called the allegations “not very serious” or “not serious at all,” and 63% of Republicans said that “most U.S. politicians” would similarly be willing to “ask a foreign government to investigate.” That was up from just 43% of Republicans who took that position in YouGov’s poll a week ago.

Partisans have quickly begun to accept the party line.

PARTISANS DIGGING IN

A lot has changed in the 45 years since Nixon’s fall from power. The steep escalation of partisanship is among the most notable shifts.

That’s why polls showing greater support for impeachment — slightly more Americans now support it than oppose it — mean less than meets the eye. But it’s also why Trump, ultimately, remains in great peril.

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As Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University poll, said in an interview Thursday, support for impeachment has grown, but the growth comes from “an increase among the people who wanted Trump out of office all along.”

Monmouth has asked about impeachment several times in its polls this year, so its surveys provide a resource for tracking how opinion has shifted. Just under half of Americans, 49%, now support an impeachment inquiry while 43% oppose, the poll found. A slim majority, 52%, currently oppose removing Trump from office, with 44% in favor.

Support for impeachment has grown significantly from a month ago. But that’s mostly because until the new allegations came out, a significant number of Trump opponents said no to impeachment, feeling they “needed to focus on 2020,” Murray said. Now, many of them have moved to support impeachment, following the lead of party officials, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said Trump’s actions left no choice but to impeach.

That’s why Democrats — even those from fairly conservative districts — feel no pressure to oppose an impeachment proceeding, as Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

But, crucially, “you’re not convincing new people that Trump should be out of office,” Murray said.

A small but potentially crucial slice of Republicans now say they support at least an impeachment inquiry, Murray noted. If that number grows, it could put Republican lawmakers in a harder spot.

The peril for Trump is that while he hasn’t lost support among those who already were behind him, he’s also done nothing to convince new people he should stay in office. His relentless focus on his base has left him with fervent, but non-majority, support.

Trump’s job approval has been extremely stable — more so than that of any other recent president — and poor, since nearly the beginning of his presidency. It currently stands at just above 4 in 10 Americans, with slightly more than half disapproving of his performance in office, according to averages of many recent polls.

The share who say they would vote to reelect Trump tends to lag a few points behind his job approval. In Monmouth’s polls, for example, support for Trump’s reelection has been stuck in a narrow band from 37% to 39% since November of last year. Support for electing someone new has ranged from 57% to 60%.

In roughly 300 “swing” counties across the country, in which Trump battled Hillary Clinton to a near-tie in 2016, only 31% back reelection now, compared with 64% who want someone new, Monmouth found.

The small but persistent gap between Trump’s low job approval and the even lower support for reelecting him is unusual. It may be tied to the large majority of people who don’t like him, including even a significant chunk of those who say they approve of the job he’s doing.

In Gallup’s most recent poll, for example, 40% approve of Trump’s job performance, but only 34% approve of him as a person.

That means Trump’s only path to reelection requires trying to make whoever runs against him as unpopular as he is — as he successfully did in 2016. Because of that, pushing unsubstantiated allegations against Biden into public discussion, even at the risk of impeachment, could pay off for Trump.

So far, polls don’t show a decline in Biden’s favorable image. But they do show a large number of people who think it’s possible he did something wrong. At minimum, as Doyle McManus writes, Hunter Biden, much like Trump’s children, will remind voters of the long line of White House relatives who have cashed in.

But the political problem for the former vice president could go beyond public distaste for his son’s actions. There’s no evidence that shows Biden put pressure on Ukrainian officials to keep them from investigating his son’s business interests. But in Monmouth’s most recent poll, 42% already say that Biden probably did do so, compared with 37% who say he did not.

CALIFORNIANS IN THE FRAY

As Sarah Wire wrote, California lawmakers are playing an outsize role in the impeachment proceedings. The most notable, of course, is Pelosi, who is exuding confidence as she confronts Trump, as Haberkorn wrote. The other on the Democratic side is Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, whom Trump repeatedly has targeted as public enemy No. 1, as Chris Megerian, Wire and Noah Bierman wrote.

Trump appears to be somewhat intimidated by Pelosi, but Schiff has a way of getting under his skin. Schiff has a lot riding on the outcome. If impeachment proves a winner for House Democrats, it could provide the ticket for him to become Pelosi’s successor.

BATTLE INTENSIFIES

As Bierman, Megerian and Eli Stokols wrote, Trump has viewed many of the government agencies he presides over with deep suspicion since even before he took office. In the impeachment fight, civil servants — the “deep state,” as Trump and his allies like to call them — have proved they can fight back.

That struggle has already dragged several senior Trump appointees into trouble. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday acknowledged he was on the call between Trump and Zelensky. Congressional investigators are looking at his role. And Atty. Gen. William Barr also faces heavy flak in the impeachment case, Del Wilber reported.

The House Democrats have threatened to subpoena the White House — a step that could come as early as today — and Trump’s rage against them and the whistleblower who got the case moving has become increasingly public. Democrats have also said they may consider obstruction charges against Trump if the White House tries to delay the impeachment probe.

THE VIEW FROM KYIV

Ukraine’s former prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, tells Tracy Wilkinson in an interview that he saw no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden. And the former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says he felt no pressure from Trump during his term in office, which ended in May.

The ousted U.S. ambassador to Kyiv could be crucial to the impeachment inquiry. Laura King and Sabra Ayres profiled Marie Louise Yovanovitch, the 60-year-old career diplomat whom Trump recalled early from Kyiv and then badmouthed to Zelensky.

“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news,” Trump said, according to the White House memo of the call.

And Ukrainian officials tell Wilkinson that Trump’s delay of U.S. aid weakened Ukraine in its fight against Russia. To Trump, that may have been a feature, not a bug.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Wondering about the process? Sarah Wire has you covered with this look at what happens now.

Doyle McManus notes that this is his third impeachment and writes: Here’s what I’ve learned.

And David Shribman, who has also covered events going back to Watergate, examines how the impeachment process, no matter how frequent it has become, is never the same from one case to the next.

THE DEMOCRATS ON THE TRAIL

Impeachment has acted like a huge storm, sweeping most other news out of the public’s attention. Nonetheless, as Evan Halper and Janet Hook report, the Democratic candidates are trying to campaign through the gale.

For Sen. Kamala Harris, the fact that the campaign is not the top news of the day might not be a bad thing right now. As Mark Barabak reported, she’s struggling even in her home state, confronting the reality that has dogged other ambitious California politicians — the state doesn’t offer much of a home-field advantage.

Sen. Bernie Sanders made news of a sort that campaigns don’t want. He’s recovering from a heart procedure after chest pain, which forced him to cancel campaign events, as Matt Pearce wrote. Aides say he’ll be back on the trail in time for the Oct. 15 debate in Ohio.

And Andrew Yang campaigned in L.A. with hip-hop and f-bombs, rallying the faithful in MacArthur Park, Tyrone Beason reported.

As Halper wrote, the Democrats have been turning an increasingly tough spotlight on Silicon Valley, siding against the tech industry in its recent fight over employment rights for gig-economy workers, for example.

THE MONEY RACE

Candidates on the left have done well, with Sanders raising $25 million in the third quarter. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been moving to the forefront in polls of the Democratic race, strengthened her position further by raising $24.6 million.

Biden, by contrast, had a lackluster quarter, raising $15.2 million. That’s less than Pete Buttigieg, who brought in $19 million, and only 50% better than Yang, who raised $10 million. Sen. Cory Booker raised just over $6 million in the third quarter.

IN COURT

The Supreme Court will take up an abortion case from Louisiana this term, one that asks the justices to decide whether a state may close down clinics by requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. As David Savage wrote, the case will provide the first strong signal of how far the court’s newly strengthened conservative majority will go in paring back abortion rights.

California will appeal a judge’s decision to block the state’s law requiring Trump to release his tax returns.

And Maura Dolan reported that a U.S. appeals court panel sharply questioned Trump’s policy of forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico. The court has allowed the policy to go into effect while it considered the case, but the judge seemed skeptical of its legality.

CONTROVERSIAL OFFICIAL LEAVING

The Trump appointee who downsized counter-terrorism efforts will resign, David Willman reports.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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david.lauter@latimes.com


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