ANALYSIS | Donald Trump walked slowly into the White House just after 1:30 a.m. Friday even more embattled than when he left it some 15 hours earlier. During a rally in Dallas hours before, he dropped the “I-word” (impeachment) just once as he described himself and conservatives as victims of an “overthrow” conspiracy.
Gordon Sondland, the hotelier-turned-ambassador to the European Union, told the House lawmakers leading an impeachment inquiry that he came to realize Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, likely was trying “to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president’s 2020 re-election campaign.”
Also during what was a remarkable Thursday, his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, acknowledged for the first time that the White House linked a $400 million military aid package to a desire for Ukraine’s government look into the 2016 U.S. election — a seeming quid pro quo Trump has denied.
After spending around 90 minutes onstage during the sometimes-raucous campaign rally in Dallas, Trump merely waved at the press pool assembled on the South Lawn. A CQ Roll Call reporter shouted over Marine One’s engines whether he intends to fire Sondland over his testimony. Trump had nothing to say.
But that was certainly not the case in the Lone Star State. Here are four takeaways from The Donald’s big night in Big D.
The president’s rallies feature a basic spiel. Some of it is scrolling in front of him on a TelePrompter and it’s fairly easy to detect when he’s reading the words his staff has written.
It’s also fairly easy to see when he is ad-libbing. Thursday night, he debuted some new, tough lines about Democrats that worked the large crowd inside the 20,000-seat American Airlines Center into a frenzy.
“The radical Democrats want to destroy America, as we know it. They want to indoctrinate our children and teach them that America is a sinful wicked nation,” a gesticulating Trump said as the crowd booed.
“They want to disarm law abiding citizens, they want to take your guns away and they want to win so far left judges [can] shred our Constitution,” he said. “It’s not happening. They want to tear down symbols of faith and drive Christians and religious believers from the public square. They want to silence your voices on social media and they want the government to censor, muzzle and shut down conservative voices. You know that if they didn’t hate our country, they wouldn’t be doing this to our country.”
Like in 2016, Trump’s vision of America — this time, without him as its president — is dark and scary. There’s also a cynical streak to his message, which also was on display when Mulvaney told reporters this as he jetted to Texas: “Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. … Elections have consequences.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden appears, according to national polls and ones focused solely on early Democratic primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, to have a serious challenger in Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. For weeks, Trump and his surrogates have been treating Biden, who the president derisively calls “Sleepy Joe,” like the presumptive Democratic nominee.
During a campaign rally last week in Minneapolis, in fact, he chose to not mention any of the other Democratic presidential candidates. That was not the case, however, seven nights later after several national polls showed Warren having overtaken Biden as the Democratic leader. (A Quinnipiac University poll released this week put Warren at 29 percent among Democratic voters and Biden at 26 percent.)
“You know, I thought ‘Pocahontas’ was gone. Left in embers. You got to give her credit — those embers, they kept going,” Trump said, using his derisive nickname rooted in her claim to Native American ancestry.
“And now it looks like she’s doing better,” the president said, seemingly elevating her to frontrunner status, at least in his supporters’ minds, when he added: “But I don’t think Joe has a chance.”
If he wants to face Warren in a head-to-head general election race, he’s not letting on in public. He does just that with Biden: “I don’t think he has a chance. I’d like him to. I’d like him to.”
Victim in chief
To hear the president tell it, the impeachment inquiry — like former Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s Russia election meddling probe before it — is just part of a never-ending conspiracy to take him down.
“They come after me,” he said of Democrats, then casting the investigations also as ones targeting his supporters.
“But what they’re really doing is they’re coming after the Republican Party, and what they’re really really doing is they’re coming after and fighting you,” the president told his base, many caught by television cameras wearing his “Make America Great Again” gear.
Trump described himself, as he often does, as their sole defender — and sole hope.
“I’m fighting for everyone who believes in the values, traditions and principles that have made our nation the greatest in the history of the world,” he said to cheers. “And I have to say this: We are far greater now than ever before you go back four years,” he added before describing Democrats as “crazy” and saying they have “absolutely no respect for the will of the American people.”
The message does resonate with Republican voters. Even though more of them support his impeachment than a month ago, the same Quinnipiac poll showed what other surveys also do: His approval rating among Republicans still hovers around 90 percent.
A Trump 2020 campaign official earlier this week made clear the president and his team are building a reelection operation aimed at winning the turnout battle. The official boasted about an increase in voter registrations on the campaign’s website and Republican Party platforms.
Always confident in public, especially when speaking directly to supporters, Trump declared this in Dallas: “We never lose.” But there are reasons to question that, including the 2018 midterm elections that saw Democrats take control of the House and make gains in state and local races.
Democratic candidates and lawmakers are betting otherwise, describing to voters a corrupt, out-for-only-himself president who ignores the law and tries to get foreign governments to help him win an election at home. Some Republicans remain confident their turnout-based strategy will work.
Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, tried minutes after the Dallas rally wrapped to dispel talk that Texas’ large Hispanic population spells trouble for Trump next November. “I think it’s a big miss by the media to assume that Hispanics are turned off because of some jarring rhetoric about immigration,” he told Fox News. “I saw a lot of Hispanic faces in that crowd tonight.”
But some within the party apparatus are less sure.
“Look, Republican voters didn’t ‘go home’ in 2018,” one GOP strategist said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And when it comes to those white voters in the suburbs, especially women, he hasn’t given them much reason to vote for him since then.”