The White House is struggling to contain the fallout from President Trump’s calls for foreign governments to look into matters related to the 2016 election and one of his chief political rivals.
Days after news reports of the initial story, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had thrown her support behind an impeachment inquiry.
The release of a reconstructed transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president stoked momentum for impeachment further, as did the release a day later of a whistleblower’s report that was first instigated by the call.
Since then, the release of texts showing the discomfort of at least some administration officials toward the president’s actions, coupled with Trump’s public statements, have the entire drama feeling like it could spin out of control.
Trump, already under fire for urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden, deepened Democrats’ scrutiny by telling reporters Thursday that China should consider an investigation into the leading Democratic presidential candidate and his son.
The text messages released by three Democratic committee chairmen late Thursday showed multiple State Department officials indicating that a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump was contingent on Ukraine investigating a Ukrainian energy company linked to Biden’s son and the 2016 election.
Meanwhile, Democrats are widening their scrutiny to include some of Trump’s top cabinet officials, including Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
As the intelligence community inspector general testified before Congress behind closed doors Friday, Democrats readied an expansive document request for the vice president’s office.
The news cycle has moved at a breakneck pace, forcing White House officials previously on the fringes of the scandal to come to the president’s defense as he insists he did nothing wrong.
Republicans have privately expressed concerns about the White House strategy, arguing Trump is serving as a one-man messaging team.
“The President did nothing wrong and we have been transparent throughout this entire process. There is not a lot of messaging or coordination to be had around those simple facts,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told The Hill in an emailed statement, pushing back at such arguments.
Grisham said Democrats should be “flat out ashamed of themselves,” accusing the party of pursuing “impeachment with no crime.”
The White House has long been marked by factions and in-fighting, and those issues have further complicated efforts to keep up with Trump’s barrage of new statements and Democrats’ fast-moving impeachment inquiry.
The result has been individual Cabinet officials and aides offering their own defenses of Trump’s conduct and seeking to downplay their own connections to it.
Pence, who has largely skirted Trump controversies, made clear on Thursday that he stood by Trump.
“One of the main reasons we were elected to Washington, D.C. was to drain the swamp,” Pence said in Arizona. “And I think the American people have a right to know if the vice president of the United States or his family profited from this position as vice president during the last administration.”
National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, two of Trump’s most prominent surrogates for discussing the state of China trade talks, were forced Friday morning to address the president’s calls for Beijing to investigate Biden and a subsequent report that Trump had raised Biden in a June call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Kudlow downplayed the significance of the latest furor, asserting it would not have much of an effect on scheduled trade talks with Chinese officials next week.
“In some sense I can’t assure you of anything, but I would say my own expectation is that’s not going to be front and center when [U.S. Trade Representative] Lighthizer and [Treasury Secretary] Mnuchin speak with Vice Premiere Liu He,” he told Bloomberg TV.
Navarro was more combative, refusing to tell CNN whether he had raised Biden during his own conversations with Chinese officials and criticizing the network’s reporting.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney who has been at the center of efforts to get dirt on the Bidens, told The Hill in an interview this week that he wouldn’t share his strategy with those inside the White House because they are “untrustworthy” and tend to leak to the press.
Consequently, much of the messaging has been left to Trump himself, who has on his Twitter feed and in public remarks angrily attacked Democrats over what he views as an effort to bruise him as the 2020 campaign gets underway.
“I question the need for an organized operation when he has the biggest megaphone on planet earth and will be more forceful than anyone else,” one former administration official said of the messaging strategy.
Trump has employed increasingly caustic rhetoric to lash out at Democrats, calling House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to be investigated for “treason,” decrying the impeachment inquiry as a “coup” and quoting a supporter who said his removal could trigger a second “civil war.”
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, has also gone on offense, spending millions on television ads hammering the allegations against Biden and likening the Democratic impeachment inquiry to a “coup.” CNN said it would not run the ads, asserting they are misleading.
The administration has sent early signals it is prepared to fight Democrats’ requests and subpoenas. Pence’s office called Democrats’ documents request on Friday unserious, and Pompeo raised a myriad of issues with committees’ demands for testimony from current and former State officials earlier this week.
Ian Prior, a former Justice Department official under Trump, surmised the impeachment inquiry would have minimal effect on Trump, arguing his actions didn’t rise to the level of past conduct by presidents who have faced impeachment, including Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and that the public would lose interest in Democrats’ narrative.
“He’s a little more forthcoming in what he says, certainly sometimes to his detriment, but is it an impeachable offense that is going to get him removed from office? Absolutely not,” Prior said.
While Trump acknowledged Friday that Democrats appear to have the votes to impeach him, the effort is unlikely to gain traction in the GOP-controlled Senate, where most Republicans have offered varying degrees of defense of Trump’s actions.
Trump continued to insist on Friday that there was “no quid pro quo” involved in his contacts with Ukraine, even as the text messages released late Thursday showed that some in his own administration doubted that.
“When I speak to a foreign leader, I speak in an appropriate manner,” Trump told reporters, saying he was only interested in “corruption” and didn’t care about “politics.”
More than a dozen text message exchanges provided by Kurt Volker, the administration’s former special envoy to Ukraine, highlighted the extent to which multiple diplomatic officials in the Trump administration pushed for Ukraine to take up investigations related to the 2016 election and Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that Biden’s son Hunter worked for.
In his opening remarks at a closed session with congressional lawmakers on Thursday, Volker distanced himself from any efforts by Trump to press for investigations into Biden. Instead, Volker appeared to shift blame to Giuliani, accusing him of helping impart on Trump a “deeply rooted negative view on Ukraine.”