President Donald Trump and his allies are bracing for open hearings that will preoccupy Washington and bring to life the vivid picture of presidential behavior that until now has been confined to written statements and private testimony.
As Democrats move toward the public phase of their inquiry with an eye to boosting support for Trump’s impeachment, White House officials are gripping for another consequence: a President consumed by the developments.
Trump has already found the specter of impeachment hard to ignore, interspersing references to the “scam” he believes Democrats are pursuing into nearly every White House meeting and set of unrelated public remarks. He has browbeat Republicans into remaining unified, though election losses in Virginia and an apparent narrow victory for Democrats in Kentucky’s governor race have provided little evidence of Trump’s political capital.
But with only brief glimpses of the stone-faced witnesses walking into the secure basement hearing room, neither Trump nor the general public has been able to fully assess their recounting of his approach to Ukraine. Now, the President will learn along with the rest of the country what members of his own administration are saying about how he pressed Ukraine to investigate a political rival.
The power of televised hearings has been something of a subplot to the Trump presidency, from James Comey to Brett Kavanaugh to Robert Mueller. But never have they come with the imminent threat of impeachment, or any real consequence beyond damaged political reputations and negative news cycles.
The hearings announced on Wednesday carry higher stakes. Since the open testimony was first floated by Democrats, the White House has worked with its Republican allies on Capitol Hill to try and formulate a way both to respond to the testimony and to use the public forum to cast the proceedings as illegitimate.
The White House is expected to do what it has for past high profile public hearings: live monitoring of the public hearing, frequent real time updates to staff and frequent dissemination of talking points to surrogates.
Two new advisers – former Treasury official Tony Sayegh and former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi – have been in the process of joining the President’s team for days, and are expected to be in place before the public hearings begin next week.
The White House Counsel’s office has looked at various options in handling the public interviews, gaming out a strategy for defending the President against accusations he used a hold in military aid to Ukraine to spur investigations into political rivals. The White House lawyers have poured through transcripts from the closed-door depositions as they build their case, trying to determine what to expect from the public phase.
Some of the prospective witnesses have given Trump’s allies more heartburn than others.
In recent days, there was a heightened level of concern inside the White House about an appearance from the top US diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. His deposition behind closed doors that alleged an explicit quid pro quo was seen as one of the most damaging to Trump’s case.
White House officials have viewed Taylor as more credible than other witnesses who detailed the President’s approach to Ukraine and have been told by Republicans on Capitol Hill that he could be the hardest to discount.
White House officials were under the impression Democrats would save his testimony for last. Instead, he’s up first – one week from Wednesday.
Taylor’s word won’t be easy to dismiss. He’s a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and was personally recruited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the job – a job that text messages published Tuesday by House investigators revealed he was extremely reluctant to take given the involvement of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine matters.
Taylor remains in his post as the top US diplomat in Kiev, another reason why some officials believe his word will carry more weight than some witnesses who have left the administration, like former National Security Council official Fiona Hill or Ambassador Kurt Volker, the one-time US special envoy to Ukraine.
After Taylor testified, Trump privately grumbled to Pompeo and blamed him for his hire. He later publicly said that Pompeo made a mistake by doing so, rare criticism for one of his favorite Cabinet members.
That response, paired with Trump’s general agitation at the closed-door impeachment proceedings, has led some officials inside the White House to wonder how he’ll react to the televised version.
In private conversations, the President has been discussing with aides and allies the intelligence whistleblower whose complaint sparked the impeachment inquiry. It’s unclear if Trump knows the identity of the person, but even in public he has pressured the news media and his allies to release the name, prompting howls of objection from the attorneys representing the whistleblower.
During the last high-profile investigation into the President – former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe – Trump was largely glued to his television screen during days with public congressional testimony. Then, Trump often watched the proceedings unfold from the comfort of the White House residence or the dining room just off the Oval Office, live-tweeting throughout.
Until now, Trump hasn’t had that distraction during the impeachment process. On Wednesday, as US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s damaging testimony was publicly released, the President carried on with his regular schedule of meetings, according to a senior White House official. He did not tweet about the testimony released Wednesday until Thursday morning, when he took to his favorite social media platform to tout Volker’s ignorance of a quid pro quo as vindication.
And instead of the President’s foul mood trickling down to the mood in the West Wing, officials also carried on largely unperturbed, though many were reading updates about the testimony.
“Nobody’s really shaken by any of this,” a senior White House official said on Wednesday night, insisting the mood in the building was the same in the morning as it was when officials filtered out of the White House.
There is also a growing sense of invincibility among many top White House officials who have watched as past efforts to investigate Trump have floundered. Neither congressional investigations nor the special counsel’s investigation left much of a mark on Trump, leaving some White House officials similarly dismissive of the impeachment investigation.
Some are banking on the public not fully understanding all the different threads in the impeachment inquiry, and not caring enough for it to move the needle. Their view is the twists in the inquiry are too complicated for average Americans to grab hold in any significant way.
A Trump adviser on Tuesday downplayed the idea that Sondland’s testimony or the release of the other transcripts add up to a serious blow for Trump.
“Hardly gaining steam,” this adviser said. “Democrats start in a position of weakness.”
The President’s political advisers have already begun to capitalize on the galvanizing nature of the proceedings among Trump’s base by mining Trump supporters for donations and stirring up resentment of Democratic efforts to get Trump out of office. At his rally Monday evening in Kentucky, supporters lined up behind him wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “Read the Transcript,” a message Trump has told his allies is effective in countering Democrats’ claims of wrongdoing.
And officials remain confident that while impeachment is inevitable, Democrats will be incapable of rallying enough Republican senators to remove Trump from office.
During a lunch with Republicans senators on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence offered a familiar-sounding piece of advice for the lawmakers in the room who have struggled with a viable defense strategy: read the transcript.
The vice president urged the lawmakers in the room to point out that the Trump administration has provided Ukraine with lethal aid and he advised them to simply refer back to the transcript when facing questions about the President’s conduct.
The advice is not new and comes as some senators have complained to the White House that they need a better defense strategy.
CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.