WASHINGTON — After a disastrous week of impeachment hearings, with a somber parade of witnesses implicating him on national television, President Trump assumed a familiar posture: total denial.
“There’s nothing there,” he insisted during a call into the friendly territory of the “Fox & Friends” morning TV show Friday. “I don’t even know these people!”
When one of the Fox News hosts delicately brought up the testimony of his own handpicked ambassador saying there was a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine, Trump denied it again. “That’s total nonsense,” he said.
The president has long adopted a pit-bull-like political stance, wholly denying any charges against him and often trying to turn witnesses’ own testimony against them.
But from “total exoneration” after the Mueller report to the more recent “perfect call” with the Ukrainian president, Trump’s extreme denials can put some of his Republican allies in an uncomfortable position, as they attempt to rebuke sworn testimony with the same stamina and enthusiasm as the president. While he is highly unlikely to be removed from office by the GOP-controlled Senate if the House votes to impeach him, Trump still has to convince voters in the coming election that he did nothing wrong, even as they are exposed to more testimony suggesting the very opposite.
Over the past two weeks, a dozen witnesses, wielding copies of text messages, notes, and e-mails, testified that Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani pushed Ukraine to launch investigations into a political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, while officials of both governments worried that nearly $400 million in frozen military aid hung in the balance. Several testified that Trump did not appear to care broadly about Ukrainian corruption at all, as he’s claimed, instead remaining laser-focused on those political investigations that could boost his own prospects in 2020.
“Was there a quid pro quo?” Gordon Sondland, the Trump-appointed ambassador to the European Union, said in his testimony Wednesday. “The answer is yes.”
With Sondland’s statement, as well as the transcript of a call showing Trump pushing the Ukrainian president for investigations that benefited him, the easier course for Republicans might have been to concede the misdeed while arguing that Democrats are pushing the matter too far. And at first, this is what several lawmakers attempted to do.
Earlier in November, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas said it was “inappropriate” for the president to seek dirt on Biden from a foreign leader.
But, he argued, the Democrats’ partisan impeachment process was unfair, and thus the whole impeachment enterprise was illegitimate.
“There’s a reason we let murderers and robbers and rapists go free when their due process rights have been violated,” Thornberry said.
Such less-than-ringing defenses of his behavior clearly irked Trump, who has been closely watching the news coverage of the probe as well as the hearings themselves.
“The call to the Ukrainian President was PERFECT,” Trump said on Twitter earlier this month. “Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable. No, it is much stronger than that. NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!”
Republicans were always expected to stand by the president, as Trump remains popular with the base while his critics within the party have lost primaries or retired. But the president has made clear standing by him isn’t enough, that other Republicans must echo that the Ukrainian call was “perfect,” even if this strains their credibility with constituents.
‘He believes simple, memorable short phrases are important and to repeat, repeat, repeat them, and to count on people to tune out on the details.’
“The easiest rationale to vote against impeachment is to say the president’s conduct was unfortunate but not impeachable,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former aide to Senator Marco Rubio.
“Trump won’t let them say that, so they’re left defending actions that they don’t agree with.”
This tension was reflected in the resounding silence coming from many Republican senators about the goings-on in the House last week. Several insisted they did not plan to even watch the hearings — one way to avoid pesky questions about them.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas told reporters he didn’t need to “waste time going through all the drama over there” in the House, appearing to want several more football fields of space between the chambers.
One reason Republicans struggle to measure up to Trump’s standard of hardball is that the president defends his behavior and attacks his adversaries in ways that are often unbounded by fact or the normal rules of political discourse. That strategy has worked so far, but it’s less clear that it transfers to other politicians, who are largely still subject to the laws of political gravity.
In his “Fox & Friends” interview, Trump doubled down on the discredited conspiracy theory that a “Ukrainian company” has the Democratic National Committee’s hacked server, which would mean Ukraine, and not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US elections.
“Are you sure?” host Steve Doocy asked tentatively, as Trump elaborated on the theory that has been rejected by his own national security advisers.
“That’s the word,” the president responded.
In Congress, some of Trump’s fiercest defenders have been willing to promote the alternative narrative that Ukraine interfered in the elections against Trump, but have not burrowed as far into the fever swamp as the president has.
When Fiona Hill, a former White House Russia expert who testified Thursday, rebuked this “falsehood” about Ukraine and warned it boosts Vladimir Putin, several of those Republicans went out of their way to affirm their belief that Russia conducted a state-sponsored meddling campaign.
“Not a single Republican member of this committee has said Russia did not meddle in the 2016 elections,” said Representative Elise Stefanik of New York.
Most Republicans have also not followed the president in his personal attacks on the impeachment inquiry’s witnesses — largely nonpartisan career diplomats and bureaucrats. The president blasted the witnesses as “Never Trumpers,” attacked the former US ambassador to Ukraine on Twitter while she testified, and called Democrats “human scum,” insults and tactics that his Republican allies did not pick up with the same intensity.
Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney in Michigan appointed by Barack Obama, said that Trump’s strategy of total denial would likely not work in a real trial, where jurors are required to pay close attention to the proceedings. Lawyers lose credibility with the jury if they don’t concede the facts, even those that cut against their case. But in the context of impeachment, where distracted Americans are not required to tune in, total denial has a better shot at working.
“His strategy seems to be to never concede a point, to insist there was no quid pro quo,” McQuade said.
“I think he’s a very good marketer and salesman and I think he believes simple, memorable short phrases are important and to repeat, repeat, repeat them, and to count on people to tune out on the details.”
While it’s too early to know whether the two weeks of testimony has moved opinions on the president, one national poll released last week showed independents souring on the impeachment inquiry itself. It’s enough for some to wonder whether Trump’s total denial could see him through the most treacherous phase of his presidency yet.
“If you take the past two weeks — in a normal political world this is a complete disaster for the administration,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and the former communications director of the Republican National Committee. “But if this week and last week were the worst weeks for the White House, well, that would have to manifest itself in Republicans turning against Trump and parts of his base turning, too. And that just is not happening.”Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.