impeachment

Impeachment takeaways: From diplomatic texts to Trump's tweets

Donald Trump

Another week, and the impeachment drama increases. The latest developments — from diplomatic text messages to presidential tweets — could leave even the most dialed-in politico’s head spinning.

We asked four reporters who have been covering Donald Trump’s presidency and the investigations to share their thoughts on where we are and where we’re going.

Where are congressional Republicans and are there any signs of cracks in Trump’s firewall of support?

Melanie Zanona, Congress reporter: I don’t expect to see a GOP jailbreak — at least not yet. Only a few Republicans have spoken out publicly against Trump, but it’s mostly the usual Trump critics or retiring members. Most Republicans are just keeping their heads down and waiting to see what else comes out and how it plays back home. I suspect we’ll have a better sense of where the GOP Conference stands after the recess.

Ben Schreckinger, national political correspondent: Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have both criticized Trump for calling on China to investigate the Bidens. But they are part of the same small group of Republican senators who have been willing to take on Trump all along. Marco Rubio, a China hawk, has declined to call out Trump for it. It does not seem like his firewall is breaking in the Senate, which is all that will matter if he is impeached.

Josh Gerstein, legal affairs contributor: I don’t see Trump’s wall of support collapsing, but a few bricks do seem to be jostling loose. I was struck this week by some commentators who almost always align themselves with the president, openly criticizing him over the Ukraine episode. “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent Joe Biden. … There's no way to spin this as a good idea,” Fox host Tucker Carlson and Daily Caller publisher Neil Patel wrote. They went on to say Trump’s infraction didn’t merit impeachment, but any disagreement from Trump’s Amen chorus must get under his skin given his repeated insistence that the call was “perfect.”

Heather Caygle, Congress reporter: Republicans left the closed-door House Intelligence Committee hearing Friday seeking to deflect criticism of the president onto Adam Schiff, the Democrat who heads it. Republicans are attacking Schiff more than defending Trump, accusing the Intel chairman of helping orchestrate the allegations. It’s been easier for Republicans to stay quiet, in part, due to the congressional recess — a two-week break for which most members are away from the Capitol and its press corps.

What’s the Biden campaign’s strategy to deal with these accusations and deal with voters’ concerns that he carries some political baggage from his past service?

Melanie: Biden can use this fight as an opportunity to show voters what a Biden-Trump matchup would look like. And he can argue that the president views him as his biggest threat in the general election — a central pillar of Biden’s argument for why he should be the Democratic nominee.

Ben: Biden’s family — and their business dealings — are a sensitive issue for the campaign, perhaps a reason they were slow out of the gate to seize on questions about Trump’s use — or misuse — of his office. Biden has been more forceful recently in condemning Trump, but there remains a real messaging dilemma for Democrats. Elizabeth Warren has struggled to answer a question about whether her ethics plan would allow a vice president’s child to sit on the board of a foreign company. And Biden’s allies are unhappy that the Democratic National Committee has barely lifted a finger to defend the Bidens, even as the Republican National Committee goes after them nonstop, as Marc Caputo and Natasha Korecki reported this morning.

Josh: Democrats may be loath to admit it to reporters or pollsters, but I suspect Trump’s attacks are fueling doubts about whether Biden’s extensive experience is in some respects a liability and that there may be too much history that provides fodder for political attacks. Ethical concerns about relatives have long dogged presidents. Even with Trump’s own vulnerability on cronyism and a slew of ethics issues, some Democrats may be looking for a candidate without even the whiff of scandal. Biden’s camp seems to be arguing that embarking on such a quest is giving in to Trump, since he’ll try to tar anyone the Dems offer up.

Heather: The Biden campaign hopes that confronting the issue and dismissing the allegations against Hunter now will neutralize the issue in the general election. The strategy appears to be one designed to show Biden not shying away Trump’s claims about his son, many of which lack evidence. It’s another way for Biden to prove he’s the best candidate to take on Trump.

What do the latest developments mean for the State Department and Secretary Mike Pompeo, as they are both dragged into — or willingly stepped into — the political vortex?

Melanie: Now we know Rudy Guiliani wasn’t just freelancing in his Ukraine pressure campaign: U.S. diplomats were actively pushing Ukraine to investigate Biden and the 2016 election on behalf of Trump. Expect Democrats to paint a picture of a president who was using foreign diplomacy for personal gain. This could also damage the credibility of Pompeo, who is said to have political ambitions of his own.

Ben: Aside from the question of whether Pompeo is implicated in the scandal, the fact that the president had his personal lawyer running a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine further undermines the State Department’s standing. I also expect the role of Rick Perry and U.S. energy policy to become a bigger part of this story

Josh: We’re starting to learn more about what the key players in Ukraine policy knew about all this. Special envoy Kurt Volker’s insistence that the investigation he was pressing Ukraine to commit to in order get a visit to the White House was not at all a probe into Joe Biden seems implausibly naïve for a sophisticated diplomat. But there must be many other players in this saga at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, at the State Department and at the National Security Council, who know at least as much as the CIA whistleblower, if not more.

As for Pompeo, everyone has wondered how he’s managed to stay in Trump’s good graces, where so many other officials have not. His actions to bolster Trump’s political goals with the Ukrainians help explain the unusual favor Pompeo has enjoyed in a Cabinet that has seen incredible turnover.

Heather: For Pompeo, everything is likely viewed, at least in part, through the lens of how this could impact his long-term political career. He is rumored to be considering a Senate run in his home state of Kansas and has notably refused to rule out the possibility. He has been, and remains, a close ally and defender of Trump, and seems to have earned the president’s trust in a way that some of Trump’s other current and former Cabinet officials weren’t able to do. Pompeo has continued to define himself as a fierce defender of the president, as evidenced earlier this week when he threatened to block State Department officials from testifying as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry.

Where does Attorney General William Barr’s credibility stand with lawmakers and the public now that it has been revealed that he enlisted the White House — and in some cases, President Trump personally — in seeking international cooperation in the probe into how the Trump-Russia investigation began?

Melanie: Democrats have long viewed Barr suspiciously, ever since he put out that initial summary of the Mueller report and took the extraordinary step of determining Trump did not obstruct justice. They say he is acting like the president’s personal attorney as opposed to the nation’s attorney. The whole Ukraine episode is only to give Democrats more ammunition, but I don’t expect them to target Barr with something like a censure resolution or trying to get him disbarred — they have bigger fish to fry.

Ben: Normally, an attorney general will go to lengths to avoid the appearance of politicizing the Justice Department (though they often fall short). Few things appear more political than investigating the origins of an investigation into the president. Then again, pressuring a foreign government to investigate your rival counts as one of those few things, so, as Melanie points out, Barr may luck out here by finding the story move past him.

Josh: Democratic lawmakers soured on Barr long ago, especially for what they regarded as spin that he put on the Mueller report. But that was mostly a complaint that he gave a skewed preview of a report that was made public in large part a few weeks later.

The confirmation this week that Barr asked Trump to reach out to world leaders to seek cooperation in Justice Department’s ongoing review of the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation is a highly irregular step because of Trump’s direct personal and political interest in the outcomes of that review. Why couldn’t State Department officials or ambassadors have handled that outreach? Dems are focused on a bigger target at the moment, but Barr—who portrays himself as a by-the-book type— will have to grapple with these questions eventually.

Heather: When Barr initially took the position, many Democrats were privately relieved that a career official with a long history of government service would be assuming the important role as the nation’s top cop. But after Barr’s handling of the Mueller report drew accusations that he was seeking to defend and protect Trump, Democrats have universally soured on the attorney general. Barr’s credibility in their eyes only continues to diminish as more information comes out about his attempts to validate Trump’s efforts to discredit the origins of the Russia investigation. Barr has also been the public face of the Justice Department’s all-out blockade of House Democrats’ sprawling oversight requests, and some of those disputes are still playing out in federal court.

Where are we at the end of this week? Do impeachment/a Senate trial/other damaging outcomes for Trump seem more likely after the disclosures of the past seven days?

Ben: Trump’s impeachment does seem more likely, especially in light of the president asking China to investigate the Bidens and the disclosure of text messages in which one U.S. diplomat made it clear he believed the administration was withholding security assistance to Ukraine in order to help Trump’s reelection. We’ve also seen a number of figures involved in this saga, including Rudy Giuliani and his associate Lev Parnas, lawyer up, another sign that we are in for another full-blown Washington legal-political showdown. It’s shaping up to be a Mueller rematch.

Melanie: It’s quickly becoming a question of when, not if, Democrats put articles of impeachment on the House floor. It just depends on when they feel like they have enough evidence to make a convincing case to the American public. There are a whole lot of dots — and now Democrats need to connect them. But things are a little more murky in the Senate: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear that he has to consider impeachment if the House follows through, but he hasn’t indicated how long the trial will last or if he will just move to dismiss it immediately.

Josh: We’re definitely closer to impeachment now, largely because of the new disclosures about Trump’s Ukraine strategy being operationalized by diplomats.

But an even bigger problem for the president may be his decision that he’ll defend himself against impeachment on the fly, without heeding professional advice. This—and goading from reporters—seems to lead to ever-escalating claims on the president’s part about his right to do anything he wants to tar Biden. Trump’s China comments triggered new criticism from Romney. But Trump’s inability to stick to a clear message—like when he denied a quid pro quo and then suggested that he’d be entirely justified in offering one—has even complicated the efforts of those trying to help him. He routinely saws off boards that his allies are presently standing on.

Heather: Democrats saw this week as a victory in their efforts to paint Trump’s conduct as an abuse of his power and of the office of the presidency. But they also feel like they succeeded in another area—keeping momentum behind the impeachment inquiry and winning the messaging war against a president who generally dictates the direction of the news cycle on a daily basis. For Democrats, it’s something many felt they weren’t able to do in the aftermath of the Mueller investigation, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders remained opposed to an impeachment investigation.

Impeachment seems almost inevitable, especially after the release of damning text messages from senior diplomats discussing Trump’s desire to exert his leverage over foreign leaders in order to satisfy his political objectives. In addition, Democrats are showing they have no intention of slowing down their investigation, with subpoenas (or the threat of one) slapped on Pompeo and the White House. And on Friday, Democrats further escalated their inquiry by demanding Vice President Mike Pence turn over any documents he has related to the Ukraine controversy.