Democrats to test Trump as impeachment moves to new stage

The House impeachment inquiry is set to move into a new, more public phase in the coming weeks that will test the viability of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE’s defense strategy.

Trump is in uncharted waters, as he may become the first president to seek reelection after being impeached. 

“We are prepared for an impeachment to happen,” White House press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamParnas says he has turned over tape of Trump calling for diplomat's firing ABC: Recording apparently captures Trump discussing Yovanovitch ouster with Parnas, Fruman Trump's split-screen presidency takes stark form in impeachment MORE said Friday on Fox News, underscoring the air of inevitability surrounding the proceedings.

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The president for weeks has insisted there was nothing wrong with his July 25 call with Ukraine’s president and urged hesitant Republicans to defend him on the substance of the charges against him.

Trump has signaled he is ready to dig in, even floating in an interview that he might read the transcript of his Ukraine call in a “fireside chat.”

The White House is unlikely to shift from its stance of not cooperating with the inquiry, despite the new rights it will have to question witnesses as part of the procedures for the probe approved in a Thursday vote in the House.

Trump’s attorney, Jay SekulowJay Alan SekulowTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Schiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Democrats worry Trump team will cherry-pick withheld documents during defense MORE, branded the House resolution as “retroactive due process” and insufficient shortly after it passed.

One former White House official recommended that the White House unify around a strategy that paints Democrats as engaged in a partisan effort to take Trump down ever since he took office — a strategy that Senate Republicans appear to be comfortable with.

But Trump’s spontaneous outbursts — he courted controversy late last month when he compared the inquiry to a “lynching” — threaten to keep him and his allies off-balance.

“The challenge of course will be executing such a strategy when you have a president that is not inclined to adhere to one,” the former official said. 

Trump has scoffed at the need for a formal team to combat impeachment, telling reporters last week, “I’m the team.”

The president expressed confidence on Friday that the public aspect of the hearings would help his case. He asserted that public opinion was on his side, pointing to his campaign's fundraising haul and middling support for impeachment in swing states.

“The impeachment thing is a hoax. Now, whether or not they try pulling it off, it would be a disgrace," Trump said before departing for a campaign rally. "You can’t impeach a president who did nothing wrong.” 

Sources familiar with plans at the White House said former Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh may be brought aboard to manage the messaging on impeachment, but otherwise Republicans and administration officials have been left to take their cues from the president.

“At this time, he feels confident with the people that he has in place,” Grisham said. “We do not feel the need for a war room, and we’ll see what happens.”

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Doug Heye, former Republican National Committee (RNC) communications director, said the White House needs to build some kind of internal crisis communications operation to get out ahead of bad headlines as Democrats move forward with public hearings. 

“Being caught by surprise if you’re in a crisis communications situation is the hardest thing to deal with. They need to figure out what are their known unknowns and know them quickly as possible and know them before other people do,” Heye said. “That needs to be an organized and coordinated process.” 

Democrats have alleged that Trump abused his office by pressuring Ukraine to investigate presidential candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenSchiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE. A rough transcript of the call, a whistleblower complaint about the conversation and closed-door testimony from officials raising concerns about the administration’s policy toward Ukraine have formed the basis of the impeachment push.

Republicans have expressed frustration with the White House approach, and some GOP lawmakers have criticized Trump’s actions in a sign of trouble for the administration.

The good news for Trump is that not a single Republican voted for the House measure establishment impeachment procedures, while two Democrats voted against it.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Social Security emerges as flash point in Biden-Sanders fight | Dems urge Supreme Court to save consumer agency | Trump to sign USMCA next week Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address MORE (D-Calif.) said Friday in a roundtable with Bloomberg that public hearings could begin this month. At least two witnesses who provided damaging private testimony about the administration’s actions towards Ukraine have reportedly agreed to appear. 

If the White House does refuse to take part in the process, it risks allowing Democrats to shape the narrative of the hearings and provide grounds for another article of impeachment on obstruction.

“I think it was frankly a mistake of the White House. By refusing to participate, they and their lawyers largely lost control of the proceedings here and of the narrative,” said Gregg Nunziata, an attorney and former counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCommerce Department withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon pushback: reports  Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address Senators press DHS over visa approval for Pensacola naval base shooter MORE (R-Fla.).

“They need to in the White House have a full view of what actually happened and an explanation for why it happened and what that means with respect to these proceedings,” he added. “They’ve just not seemed to be on the same page to date.”

Trump is embarking on a stretch of rallies that began Friday evening in Tupelo, Miss., and that will continue this week with stops in Kentucky and Louisiana that afford him the opportunity to take his counter-impeachment narrative beyond Washington in a campaign environment he thrives in.

“He’s got the power of the bully pulpit, which is enormous under normal presidencies, let alone with his ability to drive messaging,” said GOP strategist Colin Reed.

“He’s going to throw a lot of different messages against the wall and see what sticks. Some of them have worked, some of them haven’t, but now with the vote in the rear-view mirror he can get a chance to make the case that this Congress is doing nothing else because they’re focused on impeachment,” Reed continued. “I think that’s the more fertile ground to plant one’s flag in.”

Jonathan Easley contributed.