Donald Trump has solved his problem over his weak impeachment defense, fusing it with an audacious reelection pitch that makes a virtue of the rule-breaking character that got him into trouble.
The President is heaping pressure on Republicans to buy a factually dubious but bold message: Not only did he not abuse power in Ukraine but his conduct is that of a tough guy President beset by corrupt elites and boosting the US abroad.
The narrative effectively folds Trump’s apparent transgression into an extension of the effective 2016 campaign pitch that only a rule breaker can crush the power of the Washington swamp. It’s a risky message from a President who’s counting on his political instincts that tell him swing state voters aren’t convinced by Democrats’ impeachment pitch – and one whose presidency has been dripping in allegations of corruption, self-dealing and infringing the limits of presidential power.
The defense shone through a new Trump campaign ad previewed Wednesday night and in arguments by GOP lawmakers as the Democratic House held its historic preliminary impeachment vote tailored to fire up the President’s base supporters.
According to a poll released Friday by The Washington Post and ABC News, Americans are split over their support for impeaching and removing Trump – with 49% saying they support impeachment and removal.
And in an interview with The Washington Examiner, Trump felt so confident that he pitched reading the transcript of his controversial call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a “fireside chat on live television.”
Oddly, despite the House majority signaling it had the numbers to impeach the President, Thursday was one of his better days in the dramatic month-long impeachment spectacle.
That reflects how badly things have been going so far. But there did at last seem to be some coherence and logic to Trump’s defense – perhaps partly because he was largely out of sight and could not step all over his own message.
And for once, a key witness delivered testimony that was not universally damaging to the President. Two court hearings showed that wrangles over some key witnesses may confound Democratic efforts to get them on the record soon. No Republicans defected in the House impeachment vote. And the GOP now has new targets – a group of Democratic House members who won Trump districts last year but who voted to begin a process designed to throw him out of office.
One of Trump’s primary reelection talking points continues to be the economy.
“Wow, a blowout JOBS number just out, adjusted for revisions and the General Motors strike, 303,000. This is far greater than expectations. USA ROCKS!” he tweeted Friday of a better-than-expected jobs report.
The US economy added 128,000 jobs in October, though the unemployment rate rose slightly to 3.6% and US manufacturing jobs fell 36,000 jobs last month, impacted by the GM strike.
Trump true to aggressive instincts in impeachment fight
Republicans have struggled to come up with an effective impeachment defense through weeks of damaging revelations about him pressuring on Ukraine for a political payoff.
That’s partly because the evidence of the case itself is so damning.
Multiple witnesses have now testified that Trump withheld military aid to the former Soviet state that is in a state of war with Russia, in a bid to coerce it into opening an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.
The move appears to show a clear abuse of power – a President using his authority to set foreign policy not to advance the national interest but his own political prospects.
One possible defense would be for Trump to show contrition – a move that would allow Republicans in a Senate trial to bemoan the behavior but argue it does not meet the impeachment test.
But admitting any wrongdoing goes against everything Trump believes. So he and his White House have settled on a position of denying the clear fact of witness testimony and the evidence of a rough transcript of his call with Ukraine’s President.
“Anybody who reads the transcript understands it was a perfect phone call with the Ukrainian President,” Trump told Britain’s LBC Radio on Thursday in an interview.
“The Democrats are desperate, they are desperate they had nothing. They have got nothing going,” Trump said.
‘No Mr. Nice guy’
Trump’s campaign ad, first aired during the World Series on Wednesday, takes on the notion of his unchained rule breaking behavior head on – making a potential liability in the impeachment case into a quality to help him in the election.
The ad accused Democrats of focusing on impeachment and “phony” investigations and not issues Americans care about.
“He’s no Mr. Nice Guy but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington,” the narrator says in stentorian tones.
The brazen effort to portray the President not as a breaker of rules and crusher of democratic norms, but a victim of liars and unfounded attacks was taken up in extraordinary fashion by his daughter Ivanka.
She tweeted a passage from a letter to his daughter by the third President, Thomas Jefferson, in which he bemoaned a life “surrounded by enemies and spies catching and perverting every word that falls from my lips or flows from my pen, and inventing where facts fail them.”
Ivanka Trump added: “Some things never change, dad!”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy adopted the theme in his remarks before the House vote on Thursday, confirming that Trump’s impeachment defense has now been effectively folded into a more expansive, on offense, election push.
“Today is about more than the fairness of the impeachment process. It is about the integrity of our electoral process,” McCarthy said.
“Democrats are trying to impeach the President because they are scared they can’t defeat him at the ballot box. This impeachment is not only an attempt to undo the last election – it is an attempt to influence the next one, too.”
By linking impeachment so closely to the election, Trump is putting any wavering Senate Republicans who might disapprove of his behavior in a very difficult spot. Failing to support him wholeheartedly means senators will have to explain to their own voters why they are condemning a Republican President in his reelection effort.
The tactic is so audacious because it effectively asks Republicans to buy into an alternative reality, unmoored from fact, that is being perpetrated by the President and his friends on conservative media. With this approach the merits of the case do not matter – since Trump has simply invented a new one.
While potentially effective in a short-term political sense, the tactic begs searching, historic questions about the fabric of the US political system and shape of the Presidency. Accepting Trump’s argument means that a lawmaker is going on the record to say that it is OK for a President to condition taxpayer funded US aid on the return of political favors.
And it raises the prospect that the President’s unfettered vision of his own power would be vindicated by the impeachment process and leave him essentially free to do exactly what he wants for the next year, and for four years beyond reelection.
Republicans ‘afraid of the truth’
The new Trump defense poses the most extreme challenge yet to the Democratic effort to build a case brimming with damning facts that turns public opinion against the President.
“I don’t know why the Republicans are afraid of the truth,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before Thursday’s vote.
“Every member should support allowing the American people to hear the facts for themselves. This – that is really what this vote is about. It is about the truth,” she said. “And, what is at stake? What is at stake, in all of this, is nothing less than our democracy.”
The main event in impeachment apart from the House vote on Thursday was testimony from Tim Morrison, the senior Russia expert on the National Security Council.
Morrison said he was told Trump wanted a top Ukrainian official to announce an investigation that would help the President politically before US security aid to Ukraine would be released.
His comment, according to sources familiar with the testimony corroborated a key part of US diplomat Bill Taylor’s testimony that’s central to the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
But Morrison offered an opening for Republicans by saying that he did not believe anything illegal was discussed in the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
That offered the GOP a rare chance to pounce on testimony from the closed-door depositions to boost Trump’s case.
“Mr. Morrison’s testimony was very damaging to the Democrats’ narrative,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, who is one of Trump’s strongest supporters.
The impeachment action also took place in the courts on Thursday. In one case, a federal judge expressed disbelief that the White House could control what its former officials might say when subpoenaed by the House.
“We don’t live in a world where your status as a former executive branch official somehow shields you or prevents you from giving information,” Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said.
The case is over whether former White House counsel Don McGahn must appear for testimony in the House in line with an subpoena issued in April. But it could also be relevant to witnesses who seek to resist impeachment subpoenas.
Another case along similar lines centers on whether Charles Kupperman, a former deputy national security adviser, should submit to a House subpoena or a White House claim of immunity.
The judge set a hearing in the matter for December 10 and wants major questions in the case to be resolved by January.
But that will frustrate Democrats seeking to build their strongest possible case since they hope to have completed the House portion of impeachment by Christmas, clearing the way for a Senate trial in January.
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, Pamela Brown, Manu Raju, and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.