Transcript: The View from the White House

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The View from the White House.
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An exterior view of the White House on Oct 2, 2003.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

The View from the White House

Donald Trump: Hell Pennsylvania. Hello. It's great to be back in this state. It gave us the Liberty Bell, Pennsylvania Steel, Hershey Chocolate, I like Hershey Chocolate. (APPLAUSE)

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, December 11th and here's happening.

Trump: The impeachment hoax is about overturning your great 2016 vote, or, in the alternative, trying to win the 2020 election. That's not gonna happen.

Crowd: Boo.

Kornacki: President Trump is facing two articles of impeachment, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Trump: Two flimsy, pathetic, ridiculous articles of impeachment.

Crowd: Boo.

Kornacki: Last night, just hours after those charges were announced, he took to the stage in Pennsylvania to rally his supporters.

Trump: The Congressional Democrats are pushing the impeachment witch hunt, having to do with Ukraine.

Crowd: Boo.

Trump: This is the the lightest, weakest impeachment. You know, our country's had actually many impeachments. You call judges and lots of oth, many impeachments. But it was on today, everybody said, "This is impeachment light." (LAUGHTER)

Kornacki: Today on Article II, we are asking what is the White House's strategy on impeachment? And when it comes to the president, is his defense working? (MUSIC) Shannon Pettypiece is a senior White House reporter for NBC News. Shannon, welcome to the show.

Shannon Pettypiece: Thank you. Thanks for havin' me.

Kornacki: So we have been talking for weeks now, really months now about the impeachment of Donald Trump. Let's look closer at Trump himself, his White House, how he is handling all of this. He was in Hershey, Pennsylvania last night. Chocolate capital of the world. But I think when it comes to politics, obviously Pennsylvania critical state in 2020.

It's one that Trump narrowly won in 2016. It's one he's gonna need to win again if he's gonna get reelected. So on the same day that Democrats are formalizing these articles of impeachment against him, Trump is talking to a rally in Pennsylvania. What's he saying to them?

Pettypiece: He gave a pretty full throated defense of himself, as well as ripping everyone involved in this process. He, at these rallies, kinda goes through an Arya Stark enemies list, from (BACKGROUND VOICES) Adam Schiff.-

Trump: When a guy like Shifty Schiff, here's a corrupt politician.

Crowd: Boo.

Trump: To Nancy Pelosi.

Trump: She has totally lost control.

Pettypiece: To the whistleblower.

Trump: The whistleblower defrauded our country, because the whistleblower--

Pettypiece: You know, he throws one enemy after another at the audience. And it is a bit of red meat to the base, but of course it's also a way for him to sort of get some things off of his chest. And he went on for about five minutes at this rally last night, and I think that's maybe a little bit more than we get from him focused on impeachment, and it was really the only time we heard from the president yesterday. And so he certainly did take that moment to give his full-throated rebuttal to what the Democrats had laid out.

Kornacki: You know, I wonder if there's a strategy behind holding a rally like this on a night like last night. Is there a strategic element here where Trump and the White House wanna put him in an arena of 10,000 members of the Republican base who are just cheering along, shouting along, enjoying everything he's saying about this, and sort of delivering a message to Republican elected officials that, "Hey, remember the base is behind me. You don't wanna cross them."

Pettypiece: Exactly. Well, you know, in the early days of this impeachment inquiry, queen I talked to his advisors, "What are you thinking? Are you nervous? Could this be the end?" They said, "Well, watch what happens to Republican support." Even as numbers came out showing about half of Americans were supportive of this impeachment inquiry, once they saw that Republican support holding up, they said, "Okay, I think we're gonna it's all right."

There's not gonna be a mutiny in Congress, in the Senate, because those Republicans will see if they want avoid a primary, they're gonna have to sit behind this president. And I think he's continuing to do that, and these rallies, like you said, are a great example to reaffirm that he can fill 20,000 person stadiums in major cities, including major Democratic cities like Minneapolis, for example, where he was about a month or two ago. So that's definitely a side benefit of these things.

Kornacki: It's interesting too to watch Trump right now handling all of this, because we have a president who was in his shoes, in these same shoes, basically at this exact time 21 years ago. It was this same week in December 1998 that the House of Representatives was poised to impeach Bill Clinton. Clinton had a different way of handling it in public. Talk a little bit about comparisons between what Clinton was doing and what effect it was having, versus what Trump's doing now.

Pettypiece: Yeah, it was a completely different way. I've talked to a number of people who were involved in that period with Clinton, and who came up behind that strategy. And they said really key to it was keeping Clinton out of impeachment. As much as it might have bothered him personally behind the scenes, in public he appeared to be a president who was working hard on behalf of the American people.

That was the image that they tried really hard to put in front. That he couldn't be distracted by impeachment. He had read things to deal with. He had the economy and jobs and all the other foreign policy issues that come with being president. And impeachment was just a silly little thing that was being done by the Republicans.

Now, of course, he did address his accusations and his impeachment at very key, specific moments, but on a daily basis he sought to stay out of the fray and look presidential. And Republicans and Democrats credit that strategy with helping Clinton get through the process, where his approval rating went up to 60%, 70% at one point. He left office as one of the most popular presidents. They give that credit to this strategy. And Lindsey Graham was even one of those to give (RUSTLING) credit to this.

Lindsey Graham: And I think one of the reasons that he survived is that the public may not have liked what the president had done, but believed that he was still able to do his job. And as he governed durin' impeachment, I think that was probably the single best thing he did, quite frankly, to avoid--

Archival Recording: Senator.

Pettypiece: And it also it backfire on the Republicans, 'cause it made it look like the Republicans were not focused on the issues that mattered to people and were carrying on with, you know, what they tried to portray as just this silliness inside the Beltway behavior.

Kornacki: One of the other contrasts, too, between Clinton and Trump is was what going on behind the scenes. Clinton had sort of, for lack of a better term, a war council around him. An impeachment war council. Trump is really the single, sole shaper of strategy for this White House.

Pettypiece: Yeah. (LAUGH) Well, Trump actually said to us, but I forget which reporter specifically asked, but it was one of those days when he's heading off to the helicopter. And someone asked him, "Are you gonna build a war room?" Or, you know, are you gonna be adding staff to help with impeachment? And he said, "I am the team."

Trump: I don't have teams. Everyone's talkin' about teams. I'm the team. I did nothing wrong.

Pettypiece: Of course, that fits in with this bigger theme we've seen of his presidency, where he is own communication director. He is his own, you know, chief of staff. His own political advisor. He doesn't think he needs a big staff around him. But yeah, Clinton had a very formal war room.

They had a lawyer inside the White House who was solely focused on impeachment who acted as the quarterback. Who reviewed messaging and talking points that went out of the surrogates. And the surrogates Clinton had were very few. It was James Carville and Lanny Davis, for the most part. And those two were able to have a very coordinated, sharp message, backed up by the facts, backed up by the lawyers. But it was organized and strategized and focused. And we've seen something much different in the Trump White House.

Kornacki: I've seen some reporting here, a potentially interesting common link between Clinton and Trump, and that is somebody that Trump apparently met with a couple weeks ago, who was instrumental in advising Clinton in '98 and '99. Who was that? What can you tell us about that?

Pettypiece: Mark Penn, former Clinton advisor, came into the the White House to talk about this strategy that Clinton used. And the Trump White House is well aware of what Clinton did, how they strategy played out. They have received (LAUGH) this advice of keep focused on being presidential. Don't look like you're distracted and pulled down by impeachment.

But, like so much of the advice people have given Trump throughout his presidency, whether it's his National Security Advisors or his allies in Congress, he just has a way of doing it his way and making his own call at the end of the day about how he's gonna do it. And he seems to be carrying through with that. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: Shannon, I'll ask you to stay put for a quick second while we take this break. We'll be back in just a minute.

Kornacki: So let's talk about where things go from here. The articles of impeachment, Democrats are introducing here. Two articles of impeachment. Two charges, abuse of power, obstruction of Congress. We did not see the White House play a formal role in these committee hearings. They were offered one. They declined it. Will there be a specific White House defense on these two charges?

Pettypiece: The Senate is where they are expecting to really be able to lay out their case. Part of that is just by the very nature of how the Senate trial works. And we don't have all the procedures and details on what's gonna happen on the Senate side laid out yet, but, as we've seen in past impeachments, the president's lawyers will have an opportunity to stand in front of the Senate and make their very clear, concise case, like it works in a criminal trial. That's where we should see a more clear case from the White House coming to shape.

Kornacki: You're getting into some interesting territory here too, because there is this question out there about, assuming this does get to the Senate, the Senate has to have a trial. Republicans, of course, control the Senate. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.

On the one hand here, he is the leader of the Republican party in the Senate. On the other hand, he sort of has control of the entire (LAUGH) Senate, the entire chamber, the entire institution. How is he balancing those two worlds?

Pettypiece: Right. I mean he obviously is not a supporter of impeachment, and is a very strong supporter of the president. He has not been as big a defender of the president's as some members of the Senate. Lindsey Graham, for example. And I'm told that part of that is that he has to do a bit of a balancing act here.

Where the way that the impeachment is designed for the Senate is that these senators are supposed to be the jurors. I've been told by people who talked to his office, and other senators involved in this process, that, you know, they feel the House process looked very partisan and, although it's difficult to fully imagine this being possible, but they would like it to sort of look like a non-partisan process in the Senate. Or at least not have it look like, quote unquote, "kangaroo court," show trial.

To of course then give some legitimacy to the outcome, which presumably will be the president being acquitted. So in order for that to really look like the acquittal was done in a serious, thoughtful process, McConnell and other senators are sort of trying to stay out of the daily fray of impeachment.

Kornacki: You know, this is obviously a noteworthy week in Washington, to put it mildly. Not just because this is the week that Democrats put forward the articles of impeachment they're gonna bring against the president, but also because on the same day that Democrats did that, there was arguably the biggest bipartisan legislative breakthrough that there has been for the entire Trump presidency. Basically three years now. This on the USMCA, the United States Mexico Canada trade agreement. Sort of an update of the NAFTA agreement from a generation ago. The timing of that is so fascinating to folks, because--

Pettypiece: Right.

Kornacki: --this gives, at least potentially, Trump something legislatively to brag about. What's going on there?

Pettypiece: That was maybe one of the biggest whiplash moments of the past three years. There's been so many, but that was quite remarkable to see her within an hour of each other announce articles of impeachment and then come out and say, "Oh, by the way, you remember that guy we were impeaching? Well, we just reached a deal with him." But for Trump, it does give him a really strong talking point. This was one of the main campaign promises he made.

Trump: But unlike those politicians, I keep my promises. (CHEERING)

Pettypiece: Trump's advisors feel like this is one of their strongest arguments. Is that unlike every other politician in the history of the world, Trump actually did what he said he was gonna do. He didn't get into office and do what the lobbyists or the special interests told him to do. He stuck to what he said he was gonna do, and he got it done. And they have a whole motto, "Promises made, promises kept." So it is a very big win for him. And he doesn't have that many, other than the tax bill. I'd say this is maybe the second most significant legislative achievement he has.

Kornacki: At that rally last night, too, the president also making the claim that, "Hey, this whole impeachment thing, it's only making me stronger."

Trump: And our poll numbers have gone through the roof because of her stupid impeachment. (CHEERING)

Kornacki: When you look at the polls on this, it's a much more complicated picture than he's painting. We've (LAUGH) certainly seen that before. But it's not clear to me, I have to say, looking at the polls that either side is benefiting right now. I wonder, when you talk to people kinda behind the scenes, on both sides of this, do they each feel like, "Yeah, the politics of this are gonna work for us." Are they both apprehensive? Is one more confident than the other?" What do you pick up when they're sort of not being quoted for the record?

Pettypiece: Well, I mean, I say I talk a lot more to Republicans and people in Trump world than Democrats, but I certainly was just having a conversation with a Democratic strategist today, who was touting some poll numbers they had in battleground states.

And then yesterday, of course, I was talking to someone on the Trump side, who was touting their numbers in battleground states. So everybody seems to have their own version of reality. Whether it's the IG report or the Mueller report or poll numbers, everybody seems to have their own version that fits their narrative.

But when I talked to, you know, those involved with the campaign about, "What are you looking for in the poll numbers?" they have a sense that everybody's basically chosen their sides. So there is a sense that this election, like 2016, is gonna come down to the margins. It's gonna come down to turnout, it's gonna come down to mobilizing certain groups, demobilizing other groups.

It's gonna have a lot to do with who their opponent is. I think there is a general level of optimism in Trump world, but they do feel like it will come down to a few thousand votes in Florida that we won't know how it's going to go until the night before the election.

Kornacki: It's a fascinating possibility that I guess kinda fits in with this polarized era. We're always talking about the possibility you could have an impeachment of a president of the United States and he emerges politically not strengthened or weakened. Just sort of the same after actually going through--

Pettypiece: Right. (LAUGH)

Kornacki: --impeachment, and then it comes down, as you say, to another election. Here we are again. Shannon Pettypiece, senior White House reporter for NBC News, thanks for joining us.

Pettypiece: Great. Thank you.

Kornacki: Tonight, the House Judiciary committee meets to start debating and amending those two articles of impeachment. The process will continue Thursday morning and the committee is scheduled to vote on the articles by the end of the day. (MUSIC) Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Friday.