ANALYSIS | Dodge. Deny. Defame. Those three words sum up a clearly perturbed President Donald Trump’s performance under questioning Wednesday about House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Twice Trump faced reporters and twice he grew agitated — sometimes appearing angry — as he snapped at attempts to ask pointed follow-ups and painted Democrats’ inquiry as a “hoax” and “fraud.”
In signature fashion, the real estate mogul and former reality television host is using a verbal and electronic sledgehammer as his primary weapon against House Democrats. Some GOP operatives and lawmakers have expressed concern that Trump’s response — he is, so far, shunning a Bill Clinton-style impeachment war room — has been too brusque.
“The Ukraine investigation [messaging] is proving hard for a couple of reasons. One is that the president himself admitted to asking a foreign head of state to help him politically — and even without the quid pro quo of aid money,” said one GOP strategist granted anonymity to be candid. “That’s a real problem. Another is that only two men — the president and [his personal attorney] Rudy Giuliani — really know all the facts, and no one trusts either man.”
No moment summarized the scene or served as a symbol of a day in which the president lobbed curse words, insults and unsubstantiated charges at House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff and other Democrats than Trump’s angry back-and-forth with Reuters’ White House correspondent Jeff Mason.
“What do you want or what did you want President Zelenskiy to do with regard to Joe and Hunter Biden,” Mason asked, referring to Volodymyr Zelenskiy and a July 25 telephone conversation on which a White House-crafted summary shows Trump asking his counterpart to “do us a favor” by investigating the Bidens immediately after the Ukrainian leader mentioned a desire to buy more American anti-tank weapons.
Trump never directly answered Mason’s question. Instead, he began by falsely stating the call summary shows Zelenskiy first mentioning Giuliani. The summary shows Trump doing that. It is merely the latest time the president has contradicted that document.
“What I want is the following,” Trump started to say before pivoting to a rant about the level of U.S. aid that goes to Ukraine versus how much Kiev receives from European countries. As Mason pressed, Trump grew visibly agitated, barking at one point: “Biden and his son are stone-cold crooked. His son walks out with millions of dollars. The kid knows nothing.”
(Trump contends Hunter Biden was paid as a board member of a Ukrainian energy firm despite having no previous experience in the energy sector.)
Mason tried again. “Did you hear me?” Trump shouted at the reporter. “Don’t be rude!” The president never explained what he wanted Zelenskiy to do; Democrats contend Trump wanted a Ukrainian investigation to politically damage 2020 Democratic front runner Joe Biden.
The president again repeatedly denied doing anything wrong on the call, while House Democrats say they see evidence he likely violated federal laws by seeking a personal political gift from a foreign government.
In his defiant denials, the president compared investigations into his presidency to getting dressed in the morning.
“I’ve lived with it since the day I got elected,” he said. “For me, it’s like putting on a suit in the morning. [Conservative radio host] Rush [Limbaugh] said, ‘I don’t know of any man in America who could handle it.’
“It’s all a fraud. … I know I’m right. I’m very happy how I’m living,” Trump said, calling a whistleblower’s account of the call chock full of “false claims” even though it aligns with the White House’s summary.
But his denials featured more false statements and contradictions. For instance, the president on Wednesday claimed during the combative press conference that the summary of the call his staff prepared was an “exact transcript.” But during her own combative gaggle with reporters Friday afternoon, one of his top counselors, Kellyanne Conway, snapped this at a reporter who asked about verbatim transcripts of the president’s calls with other global leaders: “Those don’t exist.”
Throughout the day, including during the press conference with his Finnish counterpart — who at times seemed to duck behind his lectern and long microphone — Trump sought to paint Schiff and other Democrats as corrupt and only moving ahead with the impeachment inquiry “to win an election.”
He branded the Intelligence Committee chairman “Shifty Schiff,” tweeting the moniker and using it during two appearances before the cameras. “I call him Shifty Schiff. We don’t call him Shifty Schiff for nothing. He’s a shifty, dishonest guy,” Trump told reporters around midday in the Oval Office.
The commander in chief was ready when asked by Fox News chief White House correspondent John Roberts about a New York Times report published just before the press conference kicked off around 2:30 p.m. The story contends Schiff and a committee aide got an early description of the intelligence whistleblower’s coming complaint.
Trump ripped the California Democrat, saying in a stern manner that “it shows that Schiff is a fraud.
“I think it’s a scandal that he knew before. I’ll go a step further. I think he probably helped write [the complaint],” Trump said. “It’s a scam.”
Trump went so far as to say the Times report would help bring about “a total reversal” of the inquiry because, to him, there is “no question in my mind that some bad things are going on.”
What to make of Trump’s brash counter-impeachment strategy?
He likely is betting the burden lies more on House Democrats to use the inquiry as a 2020 campaign tool since the Republican-held Senate is unlikely to vote in a trial to remove him from office.
“Persuading the public to support impeaching and removing a president is a two-step process. The public must be convinced that the charges are true — and that they are weighty enough to justify overturning the results of a presidential election,” according to William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide now with the Brookings Institution.
Then there is talk from some House Democrats about a rapid investigation and vote on articles of impeachment, possibly even before next month’s Thanksgiving holiday.
“It remains to be seen,” Galston says, “whether the Democrats’ announced determination to proceed swiftly to impeachment will give the people enough time to assimilate new information and perhaps change their minds.”