President Donald Trump and those close to him have lagged in mounting a viable defense nearly a week since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would launch a formal impeachment inquiry.
Pelosi and her deputies have signaled they’ll work quickly to depose key players in the Ukraine scandal, hoping for swift proceedings that won’t spill into the 2020 election year. But Trump has been slow to cobble together a response, convinced he has no need for a separate impeachment team and confident in his own ability to counter-message Democrats, multiple sources close to the White House told CNN.
Six days after Pelosi’s announcement, there is now a growing concern among the President’s allies that he doesn’t understand the implications of what lies ahead or how quickly it’s moving.
Trump spent the weekend on the phone with aides and allies, railing against the whistleblower and those who provided the person with information related to his phone calls with foreign leaders, according to people familiar with the conversations.
He also waged battle on Twitter, calling for the outing of the whistleblower, demanding the House intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff be questioned for treason after he read a fictionalized version of the President’s call with Zelensky and accusing officials who provided the whistleblower with information of spying.
Aside from the fervent tweeting, there were signs the White House would rely on its allies in Congress to defend the President as the impeachment inquiry heats up.
Yet the limits of that plan were apparent Sunday, as Republican lawmakers struggled to justify what Trump said to his Ukrainian counterpart during a July phone call. A whistleblower complaint alleges Trump abused his official powers “to solicit interference” from Ukraine on that call in the upcoming 2020 election, and that the White House took steps to cover it up.
Trump has denied doing anything improper, despite a transcript released by the White House showing he repeatedly pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden – his potential 2020 political rival – and his son, Hunter Biden.
There is no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.
In interviews on Sunday talk shows, top GOP allies of the President repeated White House talking points – or in the case of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, appeared to be reading directly from a prepared script. In an appearance on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy was challenged for regurgitating White House talking points, though he denied having received them.
Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, and CNN’s Jake Tapper got into a contentious exchange Sunday on “State of the Union” after the lawmaker made false and misleading claims about the unfolding Ukraine drama.
The Sunday appearances did little to quell the furor around Trump’s behavior.
While they were in front of cameras without a strong rebuttal, Trump privately resisted appeals for help. He has dismissed talks of forming an impeachment response team, raging that talk of bringing former aides back to help him projected weakness.
Last week, some of Trump’s allies raised bringing in his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to spearhead a response team. The two men never discussed the idea directly, and talks fell apart after Trump grew angry that the discussions became public. White House aides now say it doesn’t appear likely to happen.
And he has privately declared he doesn’t need any more lawyers, even though several people have privately told him that his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, isn’t helping him.
Other outside attorneys who defended Trump during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including Jay Sekulow, have switched to working on impeachment. Despite Trump’s resistance, at least one administration official conceded it was likely additional lawyers would be needed.
A Republican congressional aide said there is a sense on Capitol Hill that things are heading in a bad direction for Trump.
“We are entering a phase with a lot of unknowns. People are anxious about what else is out there,” the aide said about the growing feeling among Republican staffers and lawmakers.
No war room
Sekulow said last week that no impeachment war room at the White House is being set up. The President met Friday with White House lawyers and his personal counsel to discuss a strategy for dealing with the Democrats’ impeachment investigation.
Aides were expected to further brief Trump on plans for an impeachment response sometime this week, according to administration officials, though some inside the White House view the past six days as a lost opportunity to shape public opinion at the outset of the inquiry.
Trump has sought to control the message himself on Twitter, mainly in angry bursts fueled by conservative media.
The fuming has caused some fractures within the Republican Party – a problem for the White House, which has largely relied on Republicans in Congress and outside the administration to defend Trump, instead of internal administration officials.
GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, responding to Trump’s tweet quoting a pastor warning of a “Civil War like fracture,” wrote that language was “beyond repugnant.”
“I have visited nations ravaged by civil war,” he wrote. “I have never imagined such a quote to be repeated by a President.”
Trump’s behavior throughout the controversy has frustrated top officials in the West Wing because the President will not give up on his conspiracy theories about the 2016 election that can be found in the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky.
Trump’s first homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, who was pushed out when John Bolton arrived as national security adviser, was the first former official to break with Trump on the nature of his call with Zelensky, saying he was “deeply disturbed” by the matter but cautioned that it was “far from proven” whether the President threatened to withhold military aid over it.
Still, Bossert painted a portrait of a President consumed by “debunked” conspiracy theories about Ukraine, warned over and over they were wrong, and still intent on pursuing them.
“At this point I am deeply frustrated with what he and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the President. It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again,” Bossert said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Bossert’s frustration with Giuliani reflects growing anger in Trump’s orbit at the former New York City mayor, who operated outside the confines of the administration to pursue Ukrainian officials and convince them to investigate the Bidens.
Trump has stood back as Giuliani has entangled the secretary of state and other administration officials in the scandal, asserting Mike Pompeo had a hand in his Ukrainian outreach.
“I did not do this on my own,” Giuliani said on CBS Sunday. “I did it at the request of the State Department, and I have all of the text messages to prove it. And I also have a thank you from them from doing a good job. When I talked to the secretary last week, he said he was aware of it.”
Despite deep frustration inside the White House over his doings, Giuliani has been the mainstay defending Trump on television.
This is, in part, on purpose, two people close to the matter said. Because Giuliani is seen as someone who can’t be controlled by anyone other than Trump, officials have decided to sit back and let him go on television until he burns himself out. Then, these people said, the President’s allies who are better equipped will step in.
The question is whether it will be too late by then.
CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.