Trump puts election-year politics at center of impeachment case

President Trump is leaning into a defense strategy marked by 2020 politics as he seeks to beat back a growing push by Democrats on impeachment.

The president has grasped at a number of political arguments to dismiss the legitimacy of the impeachment inquiry, attacking the lawmakers leading the effort, decrying the process as a “coup” and accusing the anonymous whistleblower that helped spark the investigation of working with partisan aims. 

“This is a con being perpetrated on the United States public,” Trump told reporters in the Roosevelt Room Wednesday afternoon. 

{mosads}The letter sent by the White House on Tuesday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) amplifies many of Trump’s own messages to counter the impeachment narrative, accusing Democrats of an “illegitimate” and “partisan” effort to overturn the results of the 2016 presidential election by investigating his contacts with Ukraine. 

“The President cannot allow your constitutionally illegitimate proceedings to distract him and those in the Executive Branch from their work on behalf of the American people,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote to Pelosi and three committee chairmen, calling on Democrats to “abandon” their inquiry.  

“They’re right that most Democrats have wanted to impeach the president regardless of what the facts are. They’re right that some of the actors in these proceedings are politically motivated. But that’s how it’s meant to be. Congress is full of politicians,” said Gregg Nunziata, an attorney and former counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

But experts cast skepticism on the White House’s latest salvo in the back-and-forth with Congress, viewing it as centered more on political arguments than sound legal ones and warning that it could present new risks in the ongoing impeachment fight.

Nunziata described the letter as “very confused as a legal matter,” arguing that the White House counsel’s office should be focused on asserting privilege and negotiating terms with lawmakers rather than shutting them down entirely at this point in the process.

“This letter is baffling. There is no discernible legal strategy coming out of the White House,” said Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar and George Washington University law professor. “It’s very important in impeachment to protect what I have called the spine of your case. You need to be consistent and coherent. This letter is neither, and the fact is that Congress has a legitimate right to pursue the Ukrainian evidence.” 

Turley, who is a contributor to The Hill, particularly pointed to Trump’s tweet Tuesday in which the president said he would “love” to allow a key State Department witness to testify before the House but didn’t trust Democrats’ “kangaroo court,” arguing it and the White House letter undermine Trump’s primary defense — executive privilege — in withholding material related to diplomatic communications with Ukraine. 

{mossecondads}“In the last 48 hours, they have made the position of the Democrats far stronger,” Turley continued. “If the House does vote to formally begin an impeachment investigation, this letter may come back to haunt them.” 

Some, like Turley, believe the White House raised legitimate concerns about the denial of due process and the lack of formal vote by the House on starting an impeachment inquiry despite past precedent. Others were less forgiving and described the arguments put forth by the White House as unsound.  

“The fundamental premise that the White House can decide if Congress’s investigation is illegitimate just has no legal or constitutional basis,” said Michael Conway, a former House Judiciary counsel during the Nixon impeachment. 

To be sure, the letter poses a challenge for Democrats, essentially daring Pelosi to hold a floor vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry, which would establish the scope of the effort and other governing rules. The refusal by the executive branch to cooperate could also push Democrats taking their case to court to enforce subpoenas for documents and witness testimony, resulting in a protracted legal fight. 

Trump said Wednesday that he would consider cooperating with the impeachment inquiry if the House held a formal vote and “if the rules are fair,” leaving himself enough wiggle room to continue to stonewall Democrats if the procedures aren’t to his liking.

“The whole thing is a scam, it’s a fix,” Trump told reporters. “Probably ends up being a big Supreme Court case, goes a long time, I don’t know.” 

One former White House official said that, strategically, it was smart for the White House to use the letter to try to push Democrats to hold a formal vote on impeachment. 

Pelosi has noted that there’s no legal requirement for holding a formal vote, which poses its own political risks for both parties as it would force members to stake out a position on whether they support the impeachment inquiry.

“We’ve seen a number of Republicans say that an investigation would be merited and then have to walk that back. So, another part of [Trump’s] strategy has been to keep his party in line. They’re his firewall,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University.

The White House’s defense strategy against impeachment has taken shape in recent days with the bolstering of his legal team, the refusal to cooperate with Democrats and the increasing effort to paint the inquiry as a partisan exercise designed to undo the will of voters in 2016.

The path forward must also contend with growing public support for an impeachment inquiry. A Washington Post–Schar School poll released Tuesday showed a majority of Americans favor an impeachment inquiry, and a Politico–Morning Consult poll released Wednesday morning showed half of registered voters support Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lead personal attorneys, has downplayed the need for a “war room” by minimizing the impeachment investigation as a “skirmish.”

Still, Trump’s legal team is expected to add former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) as outside counsel. Gowdy brings with him a wealth of knowledge on the legal process as a former prosecutor, as well as familiarity with congressional proceedings from his time leading the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

“Obviously Trey Gowdy has a history of being a champion of congressional authority when we had a Democrat in the White House, so it’ll be interesting to see how he squares some of those precedents with the position the White House is taking now,” said Nunziata, the former GOP Senate counsel.

Some have been underwhelmed by the dearth of a strategy from within the White House. 

One former White House official said that, while the White House doesn’t need to open a full-fledged impeachment war room, this would represent the ideal moment to fill the chief strategist role and let its occupant focus solely on countermessaging impeachment. 

Nunziata questioned why the White House had gotten away from its strategy of at least limited cooperation during former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

“They were able to claim in large part exoneration and make the case that Democrats had been overreaching on those allegations,” Nunziata said. “I think they should be doing the same thing here.”

—Updated at 11:48 a.m.

Tags Donald Trump Impeachment Jay Sekulow Marco Rubio Nancy Pelosi Robert Mueller Trey Gowdy

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