As impeachment war turns hot, Trump sounds partisan rallying cry

Analysis: The impeachment inquiry is rattling the White House, prompting an embattled president to turn to his trusted political playbook to rally his troops.

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — Not admitting to a potentially impeachable offense on national television was one of the two things President Donald Trump did Wednesday that should have pleased Republicans in Washington.

The other was turning his impeachment fight into a partisan war.

His public remarks, spread over two feisty exchanges with reporters and his Twitter feed in which the embattled president accused Democrats of crimes ranging from corruption to treason, appeared to reflect a strategy to get Republican lawmakers and voters to don their red jerseys for the fight.

It was a move that stood to shift that fight to far more comfortable terrain for a GOP that would prefer not to get stuck in his fever swamp of conspiracy theories.

Full coverage: Trump impeachment inquiry

The presidential performance came as House Democrats amplified warnings to the administration that efforts to impede their probe could produce additional impeachable offenses and the State Department inspector general held a meeting with congressional staff, in which he told them that administration officials had worked to undermine a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the family of a former U.S. vice president who is running for president.

For Republicans, the silver lining in the tightening of the impeachment vise in the House was a more clearly partisan message from Trump.

"I think a really important component of prosecuting a case against House Democrats is the notion that impeachment was inevitable, they were going to find a way to get to that no matter what," said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The argument he is making today about the inevitability of what Democrats are trying to do here is a good one with Republican lawmakers."

But Trump, who continued to say he's done nothing wrong, again declined to explain his motives during his late-July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is now at the center of the impeachment probe — refusing repeatedly to answer a question at the heart of the inquiry upon which his presidency and re-election hopes may rest.

Just what was it that Trump wanted Zelenskiy "to do with regard to Hunter Biden" — son of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, Jeff Mason of Reuters asked the president during a White House press conference.

Trump dodged the question three times, even though a summary of the call released by the White House shows him asking Zelenskiy to open a probe into the Bidens. Trump and his allies have forwarded a theory — debunked by fact-checkers — that the elder Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor to stop an investigation into a gas company that included the younger Biden on its board. The probe had ended years before Hunter Biden became a member of the board.

Though Trump declined to say in public what the reconstructed conversation in the transcript the White House released shows he said to Zelenskiy on the private call, he did accuse the Bidens of being "stone-cold crooked." He also suggested that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is handling the Ukraine end of the impeachment process, was guilty of "treason" for caricaturing the call between the leaders during a hearing last week.

Treason, which is punishable by death, is defined as waging war against the United States or providing aid and comfort to one of its enemies.

House Democrats are investigating whether to impeach Trump over a series of potentially impeachable offenses, including the possibility that he abused his office by pressing Zelenskiy to open an investigation into the Bidens while withholding a congressionally approved aid package for the country.

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Democrats said Wednesday that Trump is becoming unhinged under the pressure of an investigation that shows impropriety on his part.

"Here’s this president who almost dared Congress go ahead and do it, complete bravado, and he is completely melting down in the face of proceeding" with impeachment, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who is a member of two of the committees investigating Trump. "Everything that’s happened since we decided to proceed is corroborative of the underlying fact that he abused his office and extorted the president of another country for a partisan personal political purpose."

During a press conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at his side Wednesday morning, Schiff admonished the president and his aides to cooperate.

"We are concerned that the White House will attempt to stonewall our investigation, much as they have stonewalled other committees in the past," he said. "It's why I say the White House needs to understand that any action like that, that forces us to litigate or have to consider litigation, will be considered further evidence of obstruction of justice."

He noted that one of the articles of impeachment the House Judiciary Committee approved against President Richard Nixon — who resigned before a full House vote — involved "obstruction of the lawful functions of Congress."

Schiff became another front in the battle later Wednesday when The New York Times reported that a whistleblower whose complaint triggered the investigation into the president's dealings with Ukraine alerted an Intelligence Committee aide to get guidance before filing the complaint with the intelligence community's inspector general.

Connolly, who oversees inspectors general for government agencies from his subcommittee on the Oversight and Reform Committee, said that is a standard practice.

"It’s not unusual," he said. "This guy was punctilious and careful. What he did was absolutely proper."

But Trump took it as evidence that "Schiff is a fraud."

"I think it's a scandal that he knew before," Trump said. "I'd go a step further. I think he probably helped write [the complaint], OK?"

One of the whistleblower's attorneys said that's not true.

"I can unequivocally state that neither any member of the legal team nor the whistleblower has ever met or spoken with Congressman Schiff about this matter," the lawyer, Mark Zaid, said in a statement.

Even as Trump and Schiff went toe-to-toe from their respective ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the scope of the Ukraine scandal was spreading across Washington.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged that he had been on the phone call with the leaders of the two nations, and the State Department inspector general huddled behind closed doors with congressional aides for a meeting described as "urgent."

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who has called on Pompeo to recuse himself from the Trump-Ukraine matter, released a statement following the meeting in which he said "it appears" that Pompeo discussed documents designed to discredit a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and one of Trump's political opponents "with at least one of his top aides and that the documents were distributed at the highest levels of the State Department."

There's not much percentage for Republicans in delving into the fringe aspects of Trump's defense because they are better off "if we're on offense, talking about Democrats' overreach on impeachment than any other alternative," one Washington-based GOP strategist said.

The politics of impeachment will produce a stalemate, the strategist said, if "Republicans stand with Trump," Democrats are also seen as partisan, and "voters believe this is just a lot more noise out of Washington."

Holmes also said many Republican lawmakers will be careful about taking up conspiracy theories to defend Trump, but that they will be comfortable with his argument that Democrats have been looking to oust him from the moment he took office.

Trump expanded on that theory of the case Wednesday, including jabs at Russia probe special counsel Robert Mueller and his team amid his attacks on the Bidens, Schiff and the whistleblower.

“Nancy Pelosi and shifty Schiff, who should resign in disgrace, and Jerry Nadler and all of them, it’s a disgrace what’s going on,” the president said. “They’ve been trying to impeach me from the day I got elected. I’ve been going through this for three years.”

His comments came shortly after his campaign released a digital advertisement that it said was designed to take aim at "Democrats’ plans to stage a coup regardless of the facts."

Holmes said that messaging could resonate with its intended audience. "I think the partisan argument that whether it was Donald J. Trump or Mitt Romney, the inevitability of what’s happening here shouldn’t be mistaken" would land well with the GOP, Holmes said. "What he needs is a unified Republican message."

And while Trump has separate audiences in two venues — Republicans in Congress for impeachment and voters for his re-election — the need to keep his party together is the same for both.

But as Wednesday made clear, the president's strategy of rallying Republicans in the Senate and across the country requires going full Trump on the House Democrats who will make the case against him.