GOP searches for impeachment boogeyman

Republicans are hunting for a boogeyman in the burgeoning impeachment fight as the party struggles to unify behind a single strategy. 

Facing growing headaches, Republicans are eager to shift the public’s focus toward politically safer territory —ranging from former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Tammy Duckworth is the epitome of the American Dream Mexico's president uses US visit to tout ties with Trump MORE and his son, Hunter, to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats hit Trump for handling of Russian bounty allegations after White House briefing Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Democrats face tough questions with Bolton MORE (D-Calif.) to a “rigged” impeachment process. 

The effort to find an alternative focal point comes as the party has been beset by political headaches this week, and largely remained silent on Trump’s suggestion that China open an investigation. 

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The tactics have Republicans high-wiring between not defending Trump too forcefully on the specifics of his remarks but also needing to give the media, and the public, another potential punching bag. 

One of the biggest unifiers for Republicans has been Schiff, especially in the wake of The New York Times reporting that the whistleblower reached out to him before going to the intelligence community inspector general. 

“I think, with the Schiff story that just came out by New York Times, that's something we're absolutely going to pounce on,” one senior GOP aide told The Hill in discussing the conference’s messaging strategy.

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeRussian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide Former Trump intelligence officials say they had trouble briefing him on Russia: report GOP senator calls for Russian bounties briefing after reviewing intelligence MORE (R-Texas) told reporters that the inspector general provided “no information about the contact between the HPSCI majority and the whistleblower prior to his involvement….It’s entirely inappropriate and Chairman Schiff should be disqualified.” 

Trump quickly seized on a tweet from Ratcliffe making a similar point, tweeting “WOW, this is big stuff!” 

After the Times story, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Teacher's union puts million behind ad demanding funding for schools preparing to reopen MORE (R-Ky.) went up with a digital ad on Facebook captioned: "BREAKING: Adam Schiff LIED. His office secretly coordinated with the source of this laughable impeachment inquiry. Help me stop it.” 

House Republicans are expected to force a vote on a resolution to censure Schiff after the current recess over how he summarized Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which Schiff noted at the time was meant to be at least in part a parody. 

“I felt [that] was extremely demeaning and misleading to the American people and misrepresented the facts,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who is leading the censure resolution, told The Hill. 

Democrats have defended Schiff, arguing whistleblowers routinely reach out to the Intelligence Committee and that his staff followed protocol by telling them to contact the inspector general. A spokesman for Schiff has also said that the committee didn't review the whistleblower complaint in advance, and that Schiff knew neither the details of the complaint nor the whistleblower's identity. 

Republicans are dealing with mounting problems of their own despite the impeachment inquiry being less than two weeks old. Trump sparked a new phase of the scandal when, speaking to reporters outside the White House, he suggested both China and Ukraine should investigate the Bidens. 

Trump is doubling down on his criticism of Biden, with his campaign and Republican National Committee putting $10 million behind an ad questioning Biden’s role in the firing of a prosecutor. There’s no evidence Biden pushed for the prosecutor’s removal to protect his son. 

“They lost the election, now they want to steal this one,” the ad's narrator says

In another ad, the campaign said the “swamp is trying to take him out.” 

House Democrats released text messages late Thursday night showing several administration officials indicating that a meeting between the Ukrainian president and Trump may have been contingent on investigations requested by the United States, underscoring how the administration pushed for Ukraine to take up investigations related to the 2016 election and the Bidens. 

But Republicans believe Democrats are overplaying their hand, predicting that the move could pay political dividends in swing districts and states in 2020. Though overall support for impeaching Trump has ticked up over the past week, a CNBC All-America Economic Survey found that 88 percent of Republicans still opposed impeaching Trump. 

McConnell has been running ads pitching himself, and a GOP-controlled Senate, as a firewall to Trump being removed from office. The video ad, which began running three days after Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry, makes no reference to Trump publicly encouraging a foreign government to investigate a potential 2020 rival. 

"Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSupreme Court expands religious rights with trio of rulings Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits Democrats see victory in Trump culture war MORE's in the clutches of a left-wing mob. They finally convinced her to impeach the president. All of you know your Constitution, the way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as majority leader," McConnell says in the ad.

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Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntState and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Clash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Senate Democrats urge Pompeo to ensure Americans living overseas can vote in November MORE (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said a case for impeachment “has clearly not been made yet.” 

“I don’t know if in the Democrat House whether any facts will matter here or not. ...You know the Democrats have clearly, a significant number of them have wanted to impeach the president since the day after the election in 2016,” he said.

Trump, and some of his congressional allies, are pushing for House Democrats to formally take a vote on starting an impeachment inquiry. Republicans view the potential vote as a political boon that would force Democrats from swing districts to go on the record. 

“Democratic House members cannot be allowed to hide behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi when it comes to an impeachment inquiry of President TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE. They should – and must – vote to open an inquiry of impeachment so their constituents, country, and history can evaluate their actions,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE (R-S.C.) said in a statement.

The effort to refocus the public’s attention comes as several Republicans have gone silent about Trump’s comments. 

Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerHouse Republicans voice optimism on winning back the House following special election victories GOP pulls support from California House candidate over 'unacceptable' social media posts Trump campaign launches new fundraising program with House Republicans MORE (R-Minn.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said during a radio interview more than 24 hours after the president’s public remarks on China investigating Biden that he was hearing about the comments for the first time. 

“I'm hearing about it for the first time right now. ...I haven't had a chance to look at this,” he said during an interview with WCCO. 

Meanwhile, several Senate Republicans, including those in tough Senate races, have gone aground amid the two-week recess. A spokeswoman for Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools MORE (R-Maine) didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Hill. The vulnerable GOP centrist hasn’t yet released a public statement. 

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court orders Dakota Access Pipeline to shut down | Energy companies cancel Atlantic Coast Pipeline | House rejects Trump cuts, proposes boost for environmental agencies Senate outlook slides for GOP MORE (R-Colo.), viewed as the most vulnerable Senate Republican, released a one-word sentence that didn’t directly mention Trump or China. 

“The Senate Intelligence Committee is a serious and respected body that is looking into this in a bipartisan fashion,” he told The Associated Press. 

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Trump renews culture war, putting GOP on edge MORE (R-Iowa), when confronted by a woman at a town hall in Iowa, didn’t defend Trump, but she also didn’t join Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Trump administration narrows suspects in Russia bounties leak investigation: report MORE (R-Utah) or Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseChamber of Commerce endorses Cornyn for reelection Trump administration narrows suspects in Russia bounties leak investigation: report Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide MORE (R-Neb.) in calling out his remarks. 

“I can say yea, nay, whatever. The president is going to say what the president is going to do,” she said. “It’s up to us as members of Congress to continue working with our allies, making sure that we remain strong in the face of adversity.” 

Juliegrace Brufke contributed