President Donald Trump was watching television in the White House on Wednesday morning when cable news channels started airing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warning at a news conference that any attempts by the president to stonewall their impeachment investigation would be viewed as obstruction.
Trump did not wait for Pelosi and Schiff to finish before responding. First he attacked Pelosi on Twitter, saying she was neglecting the work of Congress "and trying to win an election through impeachment." Then he tweeted again, sharing a campaign video that accused Democrats of trying to undo the results of the 2016 election.
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Nancy Pelosi just said that she is interested in lowering prescription drug prices & working on the desperately needed USMCA. She is incapable of working on either. It is just camouflage for trying to win an election through impeachment. The Do Nothing Democrats are stuck in mud!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2019
He continued those attacks later in the afternoon, both before and after a meeting with Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, and became increasingly angry as he went on.
Trump has long believed that he is the best communicator in the White House, but as the presidential campaign picks up its pace and the prospect of his impeachment becomes more real, he seems to be its only empowered communicator, a one-man war room responding to developments almost hour by hour. And that is making many Republicans anxious.
For now, the White House has no organised response to impeachment, little guidance for surrogates to spread a consistent message even if it had developed one, and minimal coordination between the president's legal advisers and his political ones. And West Wing aides are divided on everything from who is in charge to whether, after two years of the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, impeachment even poses a serious political threat to the president.
"This is a very different animal than the Mueller investigation," said Josh Holmes, a former top aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the Senate majority leader. "It's a political question, not a legal one. They need to persuade Republicans in the House and the Senate of a bunch of really good arguments to have the partywide insulation the president is going to prefer going into this fight."
The Do Nothing Democrats should be focused on building up our Country, not wasting everyone’s time and energy on BULLSHIT, which is what they have been doing ever since I got overwhelmingly elected in 2016, 223-306. Get a better candidate this time, you’ll need it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2019
And the White House has a narrow runway to adjust and tighten its response, with just more than a week until the congressional recess ends. At that point, Republicans will return from their home districts and face questions about Trump's tweets and condemnation of the whistleblower — questions they might have difficulty answering.
"At this point, the president can hold his own," Holmes added. "But I think they should be concerned with how Republicans handle it when they get back and for that, it probably does take a little bit of structure."
For weeks, the most visible defender of the president has been Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, who is himself a central figure in the allegations that Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to find dirt on Democrats, leading several of the president's advisers to warn that Giuliani's freelance television appearances do him more harm than good.
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But Trump has told them that he is pleased with the performances, and spent part of Saturday giving Giuliani talking points for the Sunday show circuit.
Others have urged the president to tone down his language, including his repeated use of the word "treason." But Trump, who has frequently abandoned norms and paid little in terms of personal political consequences for doing so, has not changed his behaviour. That has led some advisers, like Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, to settle into a hands-off approach. Mulvaney told associates he spent part of Sunday on a golf course outside Washington.
What's left is Trump acting alone, and poised to live-tweet his own impeachment, complete with all-caps obscenities, alarming accusations of treason and warnings that impeachment is really a "coup."
During his public appearances with Niinisto on Wednesday, Trump seemed as riled up as he has at any point in his presidency, railing against his opponents, mangling the facts to fit his preferred narrative and making allegations without evidence. Flush with anger and gesturing sharply, he spent most of his time on offence attacking his critics using words like "lowlife," "dishonest," "corrupt," "shifty" and "fraud."
Behind the scenes, Trump has seesawed from projecting confidence that there is a political benefit from the impeachment fight to lashing out at aides, blaming them for the fact that he is entangled by it in the first place.
In an email, the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, rejected questions about the West Wing's approach to the impeachment inquiry.
"We have stated this several times," she said. "There has not been any effort to put together a war room. The president did nothing wrong and we are still working over here."
The confusion in the White House is leaving conservatives who want to help support Trump without a clear road map for how to do so. At a meeting on Wednesday morning with conservatives and Capitol Hill aides, White House officials were still taking the temperature on the potential political fallout of impeachment, rather than offering any instructions about their path going forward.
Paul Teller, an aide in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, quizzed the group about whether it thought a long or short impeachment process would play better with the president's base. Teller also told the group that he believed Trump would want to see McConnell bring impeachment to a vote on the Senate floor, where Trump would be acquitted, rather than move to simply dismiss the charges.
Stephen Miller, Trump's main domestic policy adviser, also briefly attended the meeting, but observed more than he spoke, according to a person familiar with what took place.
In the West Wing, aides who have seen Trump survive potentially debilitating scandals like the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape a month before the 2016 election, and the appointment of a special counsel with wide-ranging powers to investigate him, are shrugging off impeachment as just another bump in the road.
Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, is not pushing for the creation of any sort of official "war room," and has told colleagues he is comfortable with the current structure supporting the president — one that also gives him freewheeling power.
Kellyanne Conway, the White House counsellor and one of Trump's longest-serving aides, has told reporters that Trump supporters do not care about impeachment. She joins a group that includes Jay Sekulow, one of the president's personal lawyers, and other aides and allies, who believe that anything resembling a White House "war room" is needless and would make them look as if they were under siege.
"We won the Mueller probe," Sekulow said on his afternoon radio show on Monday. "I tell you what. If Mueller was a war, this is a skirmish."
But other aides privately conceded that they did not know how the politics of the impeachment process would play out, and would like to see the White House Counsel's Office bring back someone like Emmet T. Flood, the White House lawyer who oversaw the administration's response to the special counsel's investigation and worked on President Bill Clinton's legal team during his impeachment.
Flood left the administration in June.
Some are also starting to notice small public cracks in Republican support.
"Starting to encounter Republicans who wonder if maybe the President should step aside for Pence," Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger and radio host, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. "They're absolutely in the minority on the GOP side, but there does seem to be a fatigue setting in — tired of always fighting and always having to defend."
While Trump has been focused in recent days on defending himself, his advisers have continued the assault on Joe Biden, the former vice president and current presidential candidate, hoping it will cut through the impeachment noise. Kushner, who has been overseeing campaign messaging on impeachment, also personally signed off on a new round of campaign ads attacking Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Trump insisted on Wednesday that he was not trying to damage Biden in order to knock him out of the race — even while he attacked him.
"I'd rather run against Biden than almost any of those candidates," he told reporters. "And I think they're all weak, but I think Biden has never been a smart guy and he's less smart now than he ever was."
Written by: Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES