White House

Taking lead on impeachment legal message, Trump gives GOP cover to defend him

Campaign official says GOP is benefitting from inquiry with voter registration, donation surges

President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on Thursday. His legal argument on impeachment is that he committed no crime. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Senior White House officials and House Republicans are basing their counter-impeachment arguments on House Democrats’ process rather than legal arguments — but President Donald Trump is again doing his own thing and arguing the probe is invalid because, he says, he committed no crimes.

The president has no formal legal training, but that is not stopping him from leading his own legal defense, using tweets and public comments to claim House Democrats have no grounds to impeach him — and the Senate no reason to remove him — because he never outright asked Ukraine’s new president to investigate a leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, in exchange for U.S. aid.

An example of the president’s legal argument came in a Monday afternoon tweet in which he again criticized the intelligence community official who raised alarms about a July 25 phone call on which Trump asked Volodymyr Zelenskiy to “do us a favor,” and talked about a probe of Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

The president contended that House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff  — whom he mocks as “Shifty Schiff” — said Sunday his panel might not call the whistleblower to testify because that person “has lost all credibility because the story is so far from the facts on the Transcript.”

That’s not what Schiff said. The California Democrat cited concerns about the whistleblower’s safety, in light of comments the president has made, as a significant reason to not have that person testify.

[Road Ahead: Turkey sanctions unite chambers; impeachment ramps up with Congress’ return]

Trump earlier Monday demanded that the whistleblower “Must testify to explain why he got my Ukraine conversation sooo wrong, not even close.”

Those presidential tweets came even though the account of the July 25 Trump-Zelenskiy conversation spelled out in the whistleblower’s formal complaint aligns neatly with one produced and released by the White House. But, in Trump’s telling, that is entirely the point.

During the July call, according to a White House-prepared transcript, Trump did not specifically bring up that military aid package or any U.S. assistance that has gone to the Eastern European country or was being cobbled together. Perhaps the U.S. president knew he didn’t have to.

Trump, however, let Zelenskiy know his view that the United States is Ukraine’s best ally against aggression from Russia, which in 2014 invaded and annexed its Crimea region.

During the call, Zelenskiy told Trump of his incoming government’s interest in buying more U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missile systems. (The portable, shoulder-fired system is important to Ukraine since the Russian military still uses tanks.) In a response on which House Democrats and some legal experts have pounced, the American leader replied: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”

[Freedom Caucus steps into the GOP messaging gap]

Trump is arguing, three weeks into the impeachment inquiry, that he never drew a line directly from the Javelins or a nearly $400 million military aid package for Kyiv that he personally blocked for several weeks. But the whistleblower’s nine-page complaint only mentions that Trump blocked it to the confusion of National Security Council and Office of Management and Budget staffers.

The whistleblower never alleges a clear quid pro quo, just a presidential pressure campaign.

“In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the whistleblower wrote to the top intelligence community inspector general. “This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the president’s main domestic political rivals.”

On Saturday, the president told a gathering of conservative voters in Washington he views impeachment as an “ugly word” that “means horrible, horrible crimes and things.”

Regarding Democrats and voters, he said this about their messaging plans: “They’re of the opinion, you know, just keep saying it, saying it, saying it, and maybe someday they’ll believe it.” That could just as easily describe the president’s messaging. 

A Trump 2020 campaign official on Tuesday, granted anonymity to speak candidly, signaled the president and his reelection team have plenty of incentive to also keep talking about — and hammering — House Democrats’ inquiry.

Calling the probe “nonsense,” the campaign official said the impeachment investigation “makes people very angry out in the country because voters “feel like Democrats trying to cancel out their votes.”

Then came a warning for Democrats, who are hopeful they can increase their House majority and take the White House next November.

The Trump-Pence 2020 campaign organization has seen “more and more people” using its website or other Republican Party online portals to register to vote since Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sept. 24 announced the formal impeachment probe. What’s more, the official said, “we picked up, in the last couple of weeks, 50,000 new donors — that’s unheard of.”

“I just think, if I were on the other side, that would be a loud message coming from people outside of D.C.,” he said. “They are just tired of these witch hunts.”

Trump’s argument is giving GOP senators fodder to blast a message Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul delivered Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

[Former ethics czar warns impeachment letter ‘mistakes Trump for a king’]

“I think what’s interesting about this is both sides seem to be doing the same thing. If anything is consistent here, it’s that both parties are trying to involve themselves in Ukraine,” Paul said, citing a letter a group of Senate Democrats sent to U.N. officials warning Congress might withhold assistance unless corruption in Ukraine was addressed.

By following the president’s lead, some GOP senators — who would vote on whether or not to remove Trump from office if the House impeaches him — are trying to flip the script.

Paul was asked if he thinks it is acceptable for Trump to send his personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, to seek assistance in a U.S. election from a foreign government. “I think it’s equally as legitimate as the Democrats going there and saying, ‘Hey, we should investigate Trump,’” he replied.

Ultimately, Trump’s gripe has Republican senators and operatives predicting impeachment could become a bore to many voters.

“Both parties seem to be doing this, and that’s why I think ultimately the American people are going to … throw up their hands and say, �‘Well, Biden threatened the aid, you know, [Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert] Menendez threatened the aid,” Paul said.

And one GOP strategist — despite multiple polls showing increased support for impeachment and even Trump’s removal— who advises California Republicans added: “Out here, people want to hear about jobs and their healthcare — they don’t give a damn about this.”

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