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The Memo: GOP discontent deepens on Trump impeachment messaging

Republican discontent is deepening about the lack of a single, direct message from the White House aimed at blunting the Democratic push for President Trump’s impeachment.

It has been several weeks since details of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leaked to the media. Since then, the president has cycled through several rationales, justifications and counterattacks on Twitter and in public remarks.

But his approach lacks consistency and discipline, and Republican insiders are sounding the alarm.

“There is growing concern. We are almost a month into this and there is still no White House strategy,” said Alex Conant, a longtime GOP strategist who was communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.

Another GOP consultant, Dan Judy, agreed.

“The messaging is just not coordinated within the White House,” Judy said. “That’s a problem. But it is not surprising because that has been a problem with this administration since the very beginning.”

The president, combative and mercurial as ever, has lashed out almost daily since details of the call with Zelensky emerged. On the call, Trump encouraged his Ukrainian opposite number to investigate 2020 Democratic front-runner Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Among Trump’s arguments: The call was “perfect”; Democrats are engaged in another “witch hunt”; Democrats want a “coup”; Trump offered Zelensky no quid pro quo; removing Trump from office could fracture the nation like the Civil War; the allegations are “bullshit.”

Those arguments are largely subjective, but the president has also thrown out some factual assertions that are dubious at best. 

He has repeatedly attacked the reliability of the whistleblower whose allegations began the saga, despite the fact that records released by the White House comport with the whistleblower’s allegations regarding the Zelensky call.

Republicans outside of a cadre of hardcore Trump loyalists have been reluctant to appear before the television cameras to defend him. The party’s cold feet in that regard have not been helped by two high-profile TV interviews that were widely considered to have gone badly for senior Republicans. 

On an episode of CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast on Sep. 29, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) incorrectly suggested reporter Scott Pelley had misrepresented a portion of the Trump-Zelensky call. 

An appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) degenerated into a shouting match with anchor Chuck Todd.

Trump can take heart from the fact that not many Republican officeholders have explicitly broken with him on the Ukraine issue so far. 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, has been the most prominent Republican critic. He has been on the receiving end of a number of angry Trump tweets in response, including one branding him a “pompous ‘ass.’”

But if Republicans are loathe to come out in explicit opposition to the president, any attempts to defend him are complicated because of Trump’s volatile approach and the fear of what else might yet emerge.

Referring to the president’s tendency to react to what he sees on cable news, Judy said, “The administration’s line one day might not be the administration’s line after ‘Hannity’ the same night, much less the next day. So it’s a hard place, a dangerous place, for defenders of the president to be.”

Congressional Republicans have also sometimes founded their defense on different grounds than the president. Last week, after Trump suggested that China should also investigate the Bidens, Rubio argued that the president had not been serious. 

“I don’t know if that’s a real request or him just needling the press,” Rubio told a reporter at a news conference. 

There was no obvious indication that Trump was joking, nor has he himself said he was. Yet Rubio’s description was later echoed by a handful of other Republicans.

On Monday, an unrelated controversy sharpened the tensions between Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill. 

The president’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria just as Turkey was set to begin a military operation in the north of the country was widely derided. Even strong Trump supporters such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were critical.

Some voices that remain supportive of the president argue that the media is overhyping the dangers in which he finds himself.

Barry Bennett, who was a senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign, said of impeachment: “Half the country sees this as a brazen partisan attack, and the other half of the country is cheering on the brazen partisan attack. I find it very hard to believe there are still undecided people.”

Bennett also argued that there was no immediate sign of a dip in Trump’s overall approval rating in opinion polls — something that he said showed the White House’s pushback had been “effective” so far.

Even Bennett had some reservations, however.

“I would love to see something bigger,” he said. “I would love to see more strategy.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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