President Donald Trump went on the attack over the weekend before a conservative audience and in a series of tweets, signaling a legal and public relations strategy that will likely decide whether he wins a second term.
For over two hours Saturday, Trump veered from topic to topic and political foe to political foe during a fiery appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. The list of federal, state and congressional investigations into his 2016 campaign and business dealings are all “bullshit,” he said before mocking his former attorney general. A day later, he tried to blame House Democrats for his failure to make any progress with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week.
“Nothing in there was new. I mean, he’s talked about all of that before,” a senior White House official said.
The senior official did not dispute the notion that the White House is fighting a PR campaign as much as a legal fight against the many investigative teams and Democrat-run House panels looking into all things Trump. In fact, the official indicated that has been the case for months.
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What was different was the president’s delivery, and the senior official did not dispute a reporter’s question about Trump appearing to be venting after his nuclear summit with Kim in Vietnam fizzled.
“And, all of a sudden, they’re trying to take you out with bullshit. OK?” the president said to laughter followed by loud applause at CPAC. “With bullshit.”
Trump described Robert S. Mueller III and his team as “people that weren’t elected” and painted the special counsel as biased because “we have conflicts.”
“I had a nasty business transaction with Robert Mueller a number of years ago. I said, ‘Why isn’t that mentioned?’” he said, referring to a dispute over fees that led Mueller to end his membership at a Trump golf resort in Northern Virginia. “James Comey is his best friend. And those are a few of the conflicts,” he added, referring to the FBI director he fired.
“So the attorney general recuses himself, and I don’t fire him,” he said of Jeff Sessions, whom he eventually forced out last November. “No obstruction. That’s the other thing: If you use your right, if you use your power, if you use Article II [of the U.S. Constitution], it’s called obstruction. But only for Trump. For nobody else.”
Those blunt comments came as the president claimed he was “totally off script right now.”
Several GOP sources suggested Trump was anything but on Saturday — and again on Sunday evening when he fired off a tweet, asserting that last week’s testimony by his former fixer, Michael Cohen, before the House Oversight and Reform Committee “may have contributed to the ‘walk.’” That was a reference to his decision to “walk away” from nuclear disarmament talks with Kim. “Never done when a president is overseas. Shame!” he tweeted.
For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important Nuclear Summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the “walk.” Never done when a president is overseas. Shame!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2019
“[Speaker] Nancy Pelosi is not going to bring articles of impeachment because she doesn’t have the votes in the Senate. So what we’re all talking about here is a public relations campaign,” GOP strategist Evan Siegfried said. “This is a PR war on behalf of the president and the White House to discredit, disgrace and destroy all of the investigations.”
“Without the support of his [conservative] base, the president loses Republican senators, then impeachment could be a real thing,” he added. “The only way Trump survives is through the base. And the way you keep them on your side is by attacking the investigations every single day.”
Former Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum used the same rhetoric Monday morning, telling CNN he views what Democrats and experts see as Trump’s legal woes as mere “public relations” problems.
“I don’t think that’s their objective,” he said of House Democrats and impeachment proceedings.
The senior White House official nodded agreement on Monday when a reporter noted Pelosi has given no indication she plans to try to impeach the president, saying there is no sense inside the West Wing that the presidency has entered a new phase with greater legal jeopardy.
But a former Obama White House official interpreted the president’s CPAC performance and weekend tweets differently.
“I think every three to four months, there’s a sense that the administration is in a more perilous spot than it previously had been,” the former Obama official said. “The difference now is that they’re subject to congressional oversight. Whereas Hill Republicans chose to look the other way at everything, House Democrats are now positioned and equipped to hold the administration accountable.”
Picking up the pace
The president now faces not only the Oversight panel’s probe, but also ones by the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler told ABC News on Sunday that “impeachment is a long way down the road,” but he also added that it was “very clear” to him that the president has obstructed justice.
Then on Monday, the House Judiciary Committee sent senior West Wing aides huddling when it fired off letters to 81 individuals in Trump’s circle — including some inside the White House — as it launches a probe of, as Nadler said in a statement, “alleged obstruction of justice, public corruption, and other abuses of power by President Trump, his associates, and members of his administration.”
Trump tried to dispel any notions Monday that will refuse to cooperate — to some extent, at least — with House Democrats’ demand for information. “I cooperate all the time with everybody,” he said during a reception for the championship football players from North Dakota State. (The Bison were visiting the White House after winning seven of the last eight NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision national titles.)
Nadler’s announcement signals a multi-committee effort likely to span months. And Santorum said that’s the Democrats’ best play, to “just keep this going” until Election Day.
Trump appears to agree, suggesting Saturday that he was ready to punch back at every step.
“This is how I got elected, by being off script. True. And if we don’t go off script, our country is in big trouble,” he said.