Republicans are hunting for a boogeyman in the burgeoning impeachment fight as the party struggles to unify behind a single strategy.
Facing growing headaches, Republicans are eager to shift the public’s focus toward politically safer territory —ranging from former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to a “rigged” impeachment process.
The effort to find an alternative focal point comes as the party has been beset by political headaches this week, and largely remained silent on Trump’s suggestion that China open an investigation.
The tactics have Republicans high-wiring between not defending Trump too forcefully on the specifics of his remarks but also needing to give the media, and the public, another potential punching bag.
One of the biggest unifiers for Republicans has been Schiff, especially in the wake of The New York Times reporting that the whistleblower reached out to him before going to the intelligence community inspector general.
“I think, with the Schiff story that just came out by New York Times, that’s something we’re absolutely going to pounce on,” one senior GOP aide told The Hill in discussing the conference’s messaging strategy.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) told reporters that the inspector general provided “no information about the contact between the HPSCI majority and the whistleblower prior to his involvement….It’s entirely inappropriate and Chairman Schiff should be disqualified.”
Trump quickly seized on a tweet from Ratcliffe making a similar point, tweeting “WOW, this is big stuff!”
After the Times story, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went up with a digital ad on Facebook captioned: “BREAKING: Adam Schiff LIED. His office secretly coordinated with the source of this laughable impeachment inquiry. Help me stop it.”
House Republicans are expected to force a vote on a resolution to censure Schiff after the current recess over how he summarized Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which Schiff noted at the time was meant to be at least in part a parody.
“I felt [that] was extremely demeaning and misleading to the American people and misrepresented the facts,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who is leading the censure resolution, told The Hill.
Democrats have defended Schiff, arguing whistleblowers routinely reach out to the Intelligence Committee and that his staff followed protocol by telling them to contact the inspector general. A spokesman for Schiff has also said that the committee didn’t review the whistleblower complaint in advance, and that Schiff knew neither the details of the complaint nor the whistleblower’s identity.
Republicans are dealing with mounting problems of their own despite the impeachment inquiry being less than two weeks old. Trump sparked a new phase of the scandal when, speaking to reporters outside the White House, he suggested both China and Ukraine should investigate the Bidens.
Trump is doubling down on his criticism of Biden, with his campaign and Republican National Committee putting $10 million behind an ad questioning Biden’s role in the firing of a prosecutor. There’s no evidence Biden pushed for the prosecutor’s removal to protect his son.
“They lost the election, now they want to steal this one,” the ad’s narrator says.
In another ad, the campaign said the “swamp is trying to take him out.”
House Democrats released text messages late Thursday night showing several administration officials indicating that a meeting between the Ukrainian president and Trump may have been contingent on investigations requested by the United States, underscoring how the administration pushed for Ukraine to take up investigations related to the 2016 election and the Bidens.
But Republicans believe Democrats are overplaying their hand, predicting that the move could pay political dividends in swing districts and states in 2020. Though overall support for impeaching Trump has ticked up over the past week, a CNBC All-America Economic Survey found that 88 percent of Republicans still opposed impeaching Trump.
McConnell has been running ads pitching himself, and a GOP-controlled Senate, as a firewall to Trump being removed from office. The video ad, which began running three days after Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry, makes no reference to Trump publicly encouraging a foreign government to investigate a potential 2020 rival.
“Nancy Pelosi‘s in the clutches of a left-wing mob. They finally convinced her to impeach the president. All of you know your Constitution, the way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as majority leader,” McConnell says in the ad.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said a case for impeachment “has clearly not been made yet.”
“I don’t know if in the Democrat House whether any facts will matter here or not. …You know the Democrats have clearly, a significant number of them have wanted to impeach the president since the day after the election in 2016,” he said.
Trump, and some of his congressional allies, are pushing for House Democrats to formally take a vote on starting an impeachment inquiry. Republicans view the potential vote as a political boon that would force Democrats from swing districts to go on the record.
“Democratic House members cannot be allowed to hide behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi when it comes to an impeachment inquiry of President Trump. They should – and must – vote to open an inquiry of impeachment so their constituents, country, and history can evaluate their actions,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement.
The effort to refocus the public’s attention comes as several Republicans have gone silent about Trump’s comments.
Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said during a radio interview more than 24 hours after the president’s public remarks on China investigating Biden that he was hearing about the comments for the first time.
“I’m hearing about it for the first time right now. …I haven’t had a chance to look at this,” he said during an interview with WCCO.
Meanwhile, several Senate Republicans, including those in tough Senate races, have gone aground amid the two-week recess. A spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Hill. The vulnerable GOP centrist hasn’t yet released a public statement.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), viewed as the most vulnerable Senate Republican, released a one-word sentence that didn’t directly mention Trump or China.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee is a serious and respected body that is looking into this in a bipartisan fashion,” he told The Associated Press.
“I can say yea, nay, whatever. The president is going to say what the president is going to do,” she said. “It’s up to us as members of Congress to continue working with our allies, making sure that we remain strong in the face of adversity.”
Juliegrace Brufke contributed