Questionable rapid-pace decisions spurred by President Donald Trump himself have left some allies wondering if there’s a cogent strategy in place to counter Democrats in the wake of the fast-moving impeachment inquiry.
Some people close to him believe the President is in denial about the gravity of his predicament.
A depleted West Wing now faces another storm that’s likely to distract from the few policy goals aides were hoping to accomplish by year’s end. And the President himself – even after months of anticipation – has nonetheless taken the impeachment developments hard.
“THE GREATEST SCAM IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN POLITICS!” he tweeted on Thursday morning, the screaming all-caps not reflective of the strangely quiet and dejected tone he adopted during a news conference a day earlier.
A visibly angry Trump spoke to reporters later Thursday after watching coverage of a House Intelligence Committee hearing focused on a whistleblower complaint with explosive allegations, suggesting that there could potentially be a way “through the courts” to halt the impeachment process.
“There should be a way of stopping it, maybe legally through the courts. But they’re going to tie up our country. We can’t talk about gun regulation, we can’t talk about anything, because, frankly, they’re so tied up, they’re so screwed up nothing gets done, except when I do it,” Trump added.
At a fundraiser Wednesday night, Trump greeted some of his longtime friends, who’d paid thousands of dollars to attend, with disbelief at what had unfolded since he arrived into town three days earlier, according to a person who was there. After two-and-a-half years of weathering incremental developments in the Russia investigation that did not trigger an impeachment inquiry, the speed at which the Ukraine scandal unfolded has left Trump and his aides whiplashed.
Many White House officials said they were in disbelief at how rapidly Democrats have sped up their impeachment inquiry against Trump. For years, the constant drumbeat of impeachment loomed over the White House, but officials now feel like the ground has shifted beneath them.
That the entire exercise – from the breaking dam of Democrats supporting impeachment to the release of the damning telephone log – occurred while Trump was outside Washington also fueled a sense of unmanaged chaos for beleaguered White House aides.
On Thursday morning, as a whistleblower complaint emerged alleging Trump used his power “to solicit interference” in the 2020 election, the President flashed alarm at the potential his Republican allies could begin to defect.
“THE DEMOCRATS ARE TRYING TO DESTROY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY AND ALL THAT IT STANDS FOR. STICK TOGETHER, PLAY THEIR GAME, AND FIGHT HARD REPUBLICANS. OUR COUNTRY IS AT STAKE!” he wrote on Twitter.
Freed from White House confines he sometimes complains are isolating, Trump surrounded himself this week with family members and longtime friends in his 58th-floor apartment.
Instead of meeting lawmakers face-to-face, as he often does at the White House, Trump relied on phone calls to gauge the mood of Senate Republicans and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who he rang up on Tuesday morning initially to discuss gun control but eventually drifted into the impeachment matter.
Trump was incredulous after Pelosi announced this week that she was endorsing a formal impeachment inquiry, people familiar with his response said. He thought their early morning phone call had mitigated their differences, only to later realize he had misjudged the speaker.
Trump has since turned his attention to his fellow Republicans. During multiple phone calls over the last few days, Trump has phoned allies on Capitol Hill to get their read of the rapid developments and make sure they are with him. Trump, who has long been mistrustful of the more establishment members of his party, does not welcome the impeachment fight that is now seems inevitable.
As Trump’s interaction with the Ukrainian President spilled into public view after the White House released a rough transcript that many found damaging, Trump’s aides initially dismissed the anonymous whistleblower as partisan and accused Democrats of overreacting.
But over time, many realized they lacked a coherent response plan to the impeachment development, despite the possibility of it hanging over the White House for months. When the White House went to distribute a set of talking points on impeachment to its allies on Wednesday, an aide accidentally sent them to the offices of Democratic lawmakers.
Trump himself has called many of the shots, including the decision to release a rough transcript of his phone call with Ukraine’s president that has become the center of the impeachment storm.
That came after a heated internal dispute among Trump’s senior aides over whether that was a good idea, with some — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — arguing against it. It fell to Pompeo to raise the issue with his Ukrainian counterpart. Later, after the transcript was released, Ukraine’s president said he didn’t think his side of it would be made public.
Reading a strategy
Still, if Trump’s decision to release the document was second-guessed by some close to him, the President himself showed no signs of regret. He told reporters he wanted to release details of an earlier phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky – and said reporters “should ask for VP Pence’s conversation because he had a couple conversations also.”
One official speculated that they would likely need to hire outside lawyers to handle impeachment if that becomes imminent, though as of now there’s no plan to do so. In the meantime, Trump’s campaign apparatus has handled much of the counter-messaging, hoping to paint the whistleblower as partisan and depict Trump as unfairly targeted.
For now, the White House is continuing to approach this battle the same way they have confronted the increase in investigations brought on by House Democrats.
It’s only been a matter of days since it was first reported that a whistleblower filed a complaint about the President’s conduct. But over the course of those days, the dynamic has changed dramatically. Even Trump expressed surprise during a muted and, at times, rambling press conference Wednesday.
Asked whether he was braced for a long impeachment fight, Trump said, “I thought we won. I thought it was dead. It was dead. The Mueller report, no obstruction, no collusion.”
Appearing before reporters, Trump’s stance was far from valedictory or even very combative. Instead, he walked on stage to quietly fume that his diplomatic efforts went unnoticed.
“That doesn’t get covered because you waste your time on nonsense,” he said.
Still, it was Trump himself who constantly responded to questions over the course of three days about the Ukraine matter, even as foreign leaders unrelated to the scandal sat watching. And his United Nations speech on Tuesday morning contained few new ideas, opting instead for a rehash of his past years’ addresses focused on nationalism and sovereignty.
As a parade of his world counterparts passed through the same second-floor hotel meeting room to sit with Trump, the President appeared to grow less and less interested in the speed-diplomacy that has become his hallmark at the United Nations.
Instead, officials from two countries whose leaders he met said he appeared preoccupied and anxious during his sessions on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday as the noise of impeachment grew louder.
Trump made references to the “corrupt media” in each session, according to the officials, who described the President’s demeanor as like a man under siege.
CNN’s Pamela Brown and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.