Republicans preview impeachment defense strategy
Republicans are signaling how they intend to punch back against the fast-paced impeachment inquiry, marking a shift from defense to offense after Democrats scrutinized President Trump’s contacts with Ukraine during two weeks of public hearings.
The president and his supporters appear more energized in the impeachment fight, despite several current and former government officials telling Congress their concerns about a shadowy foreign policy led by people inside and outside the Trump administration.
Trump and his defenders have maintained there was nothing wrong with the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asked the foreign leader to do him “a favor” by examining unfounded claims of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election and looking into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, according to a summary readout of the call released by the White House.
Trump’s allies in the House and Senate are now taking his cue: Don’t give an inch and return fire at those attacking you.
Republicans are also carefully watching public opinion polls, which are moving in their favor. In particular, impeachment support among independents has been waning.
And outside the halls of Congress, GOP attack ads are going after vulnerable Democrats.
Trump gave shape to the GOP messaging strategy during a lengthy interview Friday on Fox News, in which he denied any and all allegations that he conditioned a White House visit and nearly $400 million in U.S. aid as leverage to get Zelensky to publicly commit to opening two investigations that would benefit him politically in 2020.
“I think it is very hard for them to impeach you when they have absolutely nothing,” Trump said during a “Fox & Friends” phone interview. “I don’t expect it.”
In seeking to distance himself from witnesses who testified there was a quid pro quo, Trump told Fox News he “hardly” knows Gordon Sondland, even though the U.S. ambassador to the European Union testified last week that there were conditions placed on scheduling a White House visit with Zelensky.
Sondland also testified that he had spoken to Trump at least 20 times, despite Trump maintaining he had only had a “couple of conversations” with his hand-picked diplomat.
Meanwhile, the president’s allies in the Senate are ramping their efforts to shift the narrative.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, is charging ahead with investigating allegations that both Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani have made against Biden: that the former vice president pushed for the removal of a top Ukrainian prosecutor in order to shield his son from scrutiny during the Obama administration.
Last Thursday, Graham sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting he turn over documents “to assist in answering questions regarding allegations that Vice President Biden played a role in the termination of Prosecutor General [Viktor] Shokin in an effort to end the investigation of the company employing his son.”
Among the requested records, Graham also sought documents in which Biden may have mentioned an investigation into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that employed Hunter Biden.
“I’m not saying Joe did anything wrong, but I want to see the transcripts, and if there’s nothing there I’ll be the first one to say there’s nothing there,” Graham tweeted Monday, defending his decision.
“I believe that Hunter Biden’s association on that board doesn’t pass the smell test. If a Republican was in the same boat they would be eaten alive by the media,” the senator continued, adding that he has a “clear” conscience.
Career diplomats testified that Biden’s calls to remove the corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor general were part of an anti-corruption policy, adding that both American institutions and U.S. allies supported such action as well.
Republicans, however, have argued that Biden inserted himself in Ukrainian affairs for his own benefit — the same accusation Democrats have leveled against Trump.
And in the House, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee have maintained a strong firewall in defending the president.
As Democrats have sought to make their case to the American public as to why Trump is unfit for office, they also laid out their case to moderate GOP members of the Intelligence Committee who they considered potentially persuadable, lawmakers like Reps. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), Will Hurd (Texas) and Mike Turner (Ohio).
But the pendulum swung the other way, with Stefanik and Turner leaning into their defense of the president, rather than running from it.
Stefanik, in particular, emerged as a star defender of Trump, using her platform at the hearings, as well as TV interviews, to blast House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and argue the impeachment process has been unfair to the president.
Speaking on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, Stefanik called Schiff an “abject failure” who did not bring any evidence for impeaching Trump.
Hurd, a former CIA officer who is retiring from Congress, called Trump’s July 25 phone “misguided foreign policy” but said the evidence did not reach the threshold to impeach the president for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Schiff, meanwhile, says Democrats have amassed “overwhelming” evidence in their impeachment inquiry, pointing to the July 25 call readout and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press conference in mid-October when he acknowledged a quid pro quo.
Mulvaney also told reporters at the briefing there would be “political influence in foreign policy” and that they would need to “get over it.”
Democrats have also pointed to the testimony from David Holmes, a career foreign service officer based in Kyiv, who testified that he heard Trump in a phone call to Sondland raise the topic of an “investigation,” which Sondland later told him was about the “big stuff” like the Bidens.
Trump has denied that the phone call took place.
While Trump’s defenders in Congress are returning Democrats’ fire, so too are Republican-aligned outside groups, spending millions on attack ads that target Democrats over impeachment in battleground districts.
The conservative American Action Network (AAN), a group aligned with House GOP leadership, recently announced a $2 million digital ad campaign urging House Democrats in swing districts to vote against impeaching Trump.
The campaign will target 30 Democrats in competitive districts that Republicans hope to win back next year.
“Stop this partisan charade. Vote NO on impeachment,” AAN President Dan Conston said in a statement earlier this month, arguing that Congress should be “working on the issues the American people care about.”