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Politics

Trump juggles statecraft and impeachment on a historic day

President Trump welcomes Turkey’s Erdogan to White House.
President Trump at a White House news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Projecting unusual calm in the middle of a political firestorm, President Trump pleaded ignorance Wednesday about the first public impeachment hearing, unexpectedly insisting that he really wasn’t paying attention to sworn testimony in the House Intelligence Committee that could determine whether he serves out his term in office.

The disclaimer might be more credible if Trump hadn’t already tweeted or retweeted about the hearing 34 times earlier in the day — including mocking the Democrats’ use of what he called “television lawyers” to help question witnesses.

Known for his addiction to cable television, the former reality TV star-turned-president insisted he didn’t watch the historic hearing “for one minute,” suggesting he was more focused on weightier matters of statecraft.

“I hear it’s a joke,” Trump said at a joint news conference in the White House East Room with the visiting president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I’ve been with the president, which is much more important.”

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Asked about the first day’s ostensible bombshell — the disclosure by William B. Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, that one of his aides had personally heard Trump discuss his demand for investigations of Democrats on a cellphone call to an official in Kyiv — Trump professed bewilderment.

“I know nothing about that,” Trump said. “First time I’ve heard of it.”

Trump’s casual, almost breezy dismissal suggested he and his aides were adjusting to the new public phase of the impeachment inquiry by, at least for now, casting the proceedings as boring.

Too boring, he seemed eager to convey, to merit any of his time.

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His mild comments came as a surprise if only because Trump is not known for message discipline, and normally spews his anger or disdain with relentless 140-character certainty. Indeed, several hours earlier he had accused his accusers — Taylor and George Kent, an assistant secretary of State, the first two witnesses — of being “NEVER TRUMPERS.”

Asked about Trump’s tweet in the hearing, both diplomats denied that characterization, describing themselves as nonpartisan career professionals who had served for decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

Embracing Turkey’s autocratic leader at the White House while lawmakers at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue focused on Trump’s apparent efforts to force Ukraine to investigate his political foes by freezing U.S. military aid — a move that could benefit another autocrat, Russian President Vladimir Putin — provided a strong symbolic subtext to the day’s events.

But Trump’s stoic efforts to appear preoccupied with foreign affairs, however controversial Erdogan might be, and unaffected by the impeachment hearings that garnered wall-to-wall TV and radio coverage, served a strategic purpose, according to a Republican official familiar with the White House game plan.

“If you watch the hearings and you believe these witnesses are ultimately credible, that could be a problem” for Trump, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If you’re convinced it’s boring, maybe you don’t watch as much, which is what we’d prefer.”

Republicans, ironically, had clamored for public hearings ever since House Democrats began closed-door hearings on Oct. 1 to take sworn depositions. Many of those witnesses are now scheduled to testify in public.

But when GOP lawmakers finally got their chance to question witnesses in public, Rep. Devin Nunes, (R-Tulare), the committee’s top Republican, derided the hearing as a made-for-television “drama,” dismissing the probe as “the low-rent Ukrainian sequel” after “the main performance, the Russia hoax, has ended.”

Numerous GOP lawmakers pointed out that the two diplomats didn’t have firsthand knowledge of Trump’s now-infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, looking to dismiss their testimony as hearsay.

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At his news conference, Trump made the same point — even as he insisted he had not watched the testimony.

“They said it’s all third-hand information, nothing direct at all,” Trump said.

Still, the diplomats’ testimony offered a detailed and damning picture of a president putting his personal political interests at the center of U.S. relations with Ukraine, a struggling European democracy that is under siege by Russian-backed troops.

Trump mostly sought to avoid the subject of the hearings during his afternoon news conference, which began an hour late and only after the six-hour hearing on Capitol Hill had wrapped up.

But he was asked about it. Standing stiffly and speaking in a measured tone, Trump expressed his desire to reveal the identity of the whistleblower whose Sept. 12 complaint sparked the inquiry, and to investigate the intelligence community’s inspector general, who validated the complaint as credible and urgent.

“This is a sham. It shouldn’t be allowed,” Trump said. “It was a situation that was caused by people that shouldn’t have allowed it to happen. I want to find out who is the whistleblower.”

He added, “I want to find out ... why would [the inspector general] have presented that?”

Erdogan made a point of criticizing the Democrat-led House — a brazen move for a foreign leader at a podium in the White House — for approving a resolution condemning the century-old mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as a genocide.

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He said he hoped the GOP-run Senate “will take the United States out of this vicious cycle.”

Trump praised Erdogan, calling him a “great friend.”

Trump had told reporters around noon that he was “too busy” to watch the hearing, but he then took a shot at Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor from New York who questioned the witnesses on behalf of Democrats.

“I see they’re using lawyers that are television lawyers — they took some guys off television,” he said. “You know, I’m not surprised to see it, because [Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank)] can’t do his own questions.”

After weeks of White House denials that it needed a “war room” to coordinate a response, Trump reelection campaign officials, Republican lawmakers and other backers appeared to operate off similar talking points, tweeting comments that sought to poke holes in the Democrats’ case.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham dismissed the proceeding as “boring” and “a colossal waste of taxpayer time & money.”

Trump’s reelection campaign blasted out a fundraising email as the House proceeding began, seeking to raise $3 million over 24 hours and dismissing the impeachment inquiry as an unwarranted partisan attempt to take down the president. The letter, signed by Trump, was blunt.

“It’s obvious they hate me,” he wrote to supporters. “But more importantly, they HATE YOU.”


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