The House collected more damning testimony this week detailing President Donald Trump’s attempts to get Ukrainian help investigating his political foes. A surprise confession came from the White House lectern. And Senate Republican leaders urged their rank-and-file to prepare for a trial before Christmas.
Things sure are cooking on the impeachment front.
To help make sense of it all, we asked five reporters covering the Trump presidency and the investigations to offer insights on what’s happened and what’s ahead.
Story Continued Below
Does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s timeline for impeachment — the House passing articles as soon as Thanksgiving and a Senate trial finished by Christmas — sound realistic?
Darren Samuelsohn, senior White House reporter: Not really. But I also think McConnell is making a political play here to set up expectations on the timing for this process when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and company are doing everything they can to avoid talking about a timeline. Washington loves to make deadlines, and when someone in power offers one this town gets even more obsessed about whether it will or won’t be met. So it’s a good move by McConnell to put this out there, even if things spill into 2021 like I think they will.
Natasha Bertrand, National security correspondent: No, but as Darren alluded to, that’s probably the point. Some Democrats I’ve spoken to, including Joaquin Castro, who sits on two of the three main committees investigating impeachment, have said that ideally they’d like to see the House vote on impeachment articles by the spring. But the Thanksgiving and Christmas deadlines floated by McConnell seem unrealistic and like a way to set Democrats up to fail.
Story Continued Below
Nancy Cook, White House reporter: White House officials are too busy fighting among themselves over who should oversee and coordinate the impeachment response to zero in too much on a timeline. But they are closely studying the former impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton and President Richard Nixon for clues about what to come, and they are basing their expectations, in part, on history.
Josh Gerstein, legal affairs reporter: The timing seems awfully ambitious, particularly with the slew of court fights still ongoing that could contribute to impeachment. Of course, Dems can just cry “Obstruction!” and sally forth, and those battles don’t yet involve the Ukraine matter. I do think McConnell’s discussion of timing and mechanics of a Senate trial is aimed in part at reminding Senate Democrats running for president that moving forward with impeachment means there will be a practical impact on their campaigns just as primaries and caucuses are getting underway.
Melanie Zanona, congressional reporter: That timeline is wishful thinking. Democrats are still in the “fact-finding” phase of their investigation — and some members have said they’re surprised by how many witnesses are still lining up to spill their secrets. Democrats also need to hold public hearings at some point and then actually draft articles of impeachment, which could be a time-consuming process. And not to mention, Congress also needs to fund the government by Nov. 21.
Are we any closer to Republicans breaking ranks with President Trump?
Darren: Not in any substantial numbers. After all, Mitt Romney, maybe the most outspoken member of the GOP to take issue with the president on so many different issues, is facing a withering series of attacks from his right. I imagine that message from Trumpworld is one that will have many Hill Republicans lying as low as they can on impeachment for as long as they can. What’s the point for anyone really to speak up until they are actually about to take a vote?
Natasha: No, but we haven’t seen many full-throated defenses either, especially in light of his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria and recent reports that Turkey, exploiting that power vacuum, may have committed war crimes against the U.S.’ Kurdish allies by attacking them with chemical weapons. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, normally a staunch Trump ally, told an NBC reporter this week that he would “become President Trump’s worst nightmare” on Syria if he didn’t reverse course, and a House resolution condemning the withdrawal passed with bipartisan support. But as our colleagues have reported, that revolt appears to have been short-lived.
- Erdogan condemns Trump letter: ‘We haven’t forgotten’
- Mark Kelly raises astronomical sum in bid to snag Senate seat from GOP
- ‘Mulvaney needs to learn when to stop talking’: Mick on thin ice after bungled briefing
- Democrats are zeroing in on Rudy Giuliani to impeach Trump
- First Republican calls for Rick Perry to answer House subpoena
Nancy: Toward the end of the week, we did see some cracks in the Republican support particularly after acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s startling press conference and his efforts to walk back his statements. House leadership was throwing him under the bus privately, and one of our congressional reporters, Melanie Zanona, had a really interesting conversation with Florida Republican Rep. Francis Rooney, who called Mulvaney’s quid pro quo comment a problem. The White House is not giving Republican lawmakers much help in defending President Donald Trump with their missteps and the avalanche of news out of the congressional testimony — and that puts Republicans on the Hill in a hard place politically.
Josh: I think we’re a tad closer because we have to assume that Republicans in the Senate privately share at least some of the views being openly expressed by others in the GOP. When Speaker Pelosi essentially accuses Trump of being a Russian stooge and someone like Rooney responds by saying, “She’s got a point,” it feels like there’s a level of growing Republican frustration with Trump that will eventually find an outlet. Just seems like under any normal conditions, any GOP lawmaker would dismiss such a suggestion as absurd and offensive.
Melanie: We’ve seen some Republicans start to dip their toes in the impeachment waters — but no-one has jumped in just yet. Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska), who has been pretty careful with her responses to the Ukraine scandal, said: “You don’t hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative — period.” And as Nancy and Josh mentioned, Rooney, who has been sitting in on the closed-door depositions, said he was stunned by Mulvaney’s admission of a quid pro quo and hasn’t ruled out supporting impeachment. “I want to get the facts and do the right thing,” he said. “Because I’ll be looking at my children a lot longer than I’m looking at anybody in this building.”
Does the White House seem closer or farther away from an actual impeachment strategy?
Darren: Things are going about how you’d expect they would for the Trump White House. There are too many conflicting messages coming out, and we have different power centers caught up in the scandal trying to save themselves. Chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press conference this week, where he acknowledged the political reality of withholding military assistance to Ukraine, followed a pattern we saw during the Mueller and Stormy Daniels probes where Rudy Giuliani would blurt out damaging things that had been done but insist they were all perfectly appropriate. I can’t really tell what the point is other than to limit the damage among Republicans who have to be taking everything in and wondering which way the wind will be blowing when it does come time to vote on impeachment.
Natasha: Farther away, especially as Trump’s allies, particularly in Congress, work for days to try to deny that something happened — i.e., a quid pro quo — only to have someone from the White House or Trump himself completely undermine it in a press conference or tweet, as we saw on Thursday with Mulvaney. The closest thing to a strategy that emerged this week was a concerted attack on Nancy Pelosi, which seemed to have backfired as Pelosi proudly displayed a photo of herself standing up to Trump as her Twitter banner.
Nancy: Strategy has never the strong suit of this particular White House. We’re seeing the same pattern play out with impeachment, as everyone in the Trump orbit from lawyers to outside allies to top West Wing staffers vie for the opportunity to impress the president.
Josh: Still seems more like improvisation than strategy to me. Whatever they’re trying to do is poorly calibrated, even if there is a plan. I thought it was interesting that Mulvaney talked about the importance of having “our P.R. people” at the table, even as he made a confusing presentation that was entirely unhelpful to the president. There does seem to be some fairly consistent messaging about the process, but I suspect this may be because surrogates are too worried about being contradicted on the facts to attempt to defend Trump on those grounds.
Melanie: It still looks like the Trump campaign is taking the lead on the president’s impeachment defense strategy — and it’s not always consistent with the White House, which is creating some headaches for the GOP. Case in point: Even after Mulvaney walked back his admission of a quid pro quo (and Republicans sought to distance themselves from the comments), the Trump campaign embraced one of his lines from the press conference — “get over it” — and turned it into a T-shirt.
Do you think we will be seeing more or less of Rudy?
Darren: I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I think there will be less Rudy going forward. By all accounts, federal prosecutors from the office in New York that he once led are giving Giuliani and his business dealings in Ukraine a thorough scrubbing. And Giuliani knows better than anyone what he’s saying aloud on television and in print interviews can end up being used against him in an indictment. So, I expect Rudy to stop doing so many interviews but that doesn’t mean he won’t still be working closely with the president to strategize on impeachment, 2020 politics and probably some policy, too. And of course, this being Rudy, I completely expect to eat everything I just wrote when he does a full Ginsburg on the Sunday shows.
Natasha: Most experts believe it would be wise for Giuliani to lay low as federal prosecutors examine whether he violated any foreign agent registration laws or engaged in any financial improprieties related to his foreign clients, and indeed he’s been less visible on cable news in the last week and seemingly harder to reach than in the past. But he also just lost his lawyer, Jon Sale, who he’d been leaning on to deal with congressional subpoenas and documents requests. So it’s possible Giuliani will re-emerge to defend himself publicly without a lawyer around advising him not to.
Nancy: Trump campaign staffers, outside advisers and White House aides would love, love, love to see less of Rudy, but he’s like a security blanket for Trump. They share the same penchant for conspiracy theories, plus a really close friendship. Post-Bolton, the president also sees the benefit of not just dropping friends and aides by Tweet — lest they inflict more damage from the outside.
Josh: Rudy may be talking less from here on but there’s going to be plenty for reporters and now the legal system to plow through that will make sure he’s not far from the news. I suspect Trump will attempt exactly the same play he did with Michael Cohen: keep him close enough that he doesn’t get the feeling he’s being hung out to dry, but not so close as to be joined at the hip in case things for Rudy take a turn for the worse. Didn’t work with Cohen, of course. We shall see with Rudy.
Melanie: Publicly, I suspect we’ll see less of Rudy. Even before the arrest of Rudy’s two associates, the White House was trying to bring in new outside legal counsel because they wanted someone to replace Rudy as a surrogate on TV. But that doesn’t mean Trump is quitting Rudy: Not only do they have a long history together, but the president now has an interest in staying in Rudy’s good graces.
What are you most looking forward to next week?
Darren: The World Series. But over in politics nerd land, I’ll be watching to see whether House Democrats do indeed begin to send signals about their timing for impeachment. They technically only have four work weeks left before the Thanksgiving recess (there’s a break scheduled for that first week of November) so it’ll be notable if Pelosi or other committee leaders articulate where we are in the process. We’re also waiting to see how Judge Beryl Howell rules on the Mueller grand jury materials. I wouldn’t put a definite timeline on things but that decision seems imminent and should cause some significant waves in the impeachment debate if the Democrats do win and then the Justice Department appeals as one would expect.
Natasha: I’m curious whether the National Security Council’s lawyer, John Eisenberg, will emerge as a scapegoat for the White House, especially as they try to explain why Trump’s call transcripts — including the one documenting his conversation with Zelensky — were placed in a top secret codeword system meant to conceal the records from scrutiny. I’m even more interested in whether Eisenberg will resist being thrown under the bus and speak out in whatever manner he can.
Nancy: Who is going to take the fall in Trumpworld for the impeachment proceedings: Giuliani, Mulvaney or Energy Secretary Rick Perry? Does the White House move any closer to developing a strategy to fight the Democrats? What does the polling look like on public opinion for impeachment especially among independents and female voters? And what else are we going to learn from congressional testimony from mid-level agency aides and diplomats? It’s been pretty explosive so far and fast-moving.
Josh: The Giuliani-Ukraine story will get the full New York City press corps treatment next week as the two Giuliani associates charged with serving as conduits for U.S. political donations from Ukraine, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, make their first appearance before the federal judge in Manhattan assigned to their case. That should be a scene especially since their arraignment Wednesday is scheduled at about the same time as a big appeals court case in the very same courthouse over New York prosecutors’ efforts to get Trump’s taxes.
Melanie: On Tuesday, House investigators will get to question Bill Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine and a key witness in the impeachment probe. Taylor, as you’ll recall, expressed concerns in text messages to other diplomats about their effort to secure a public commitment from Ukraine to probe the Biden family. At one point Taylor asked: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” To which the other diplomat replied: “Call me.” We’ll see whether Democrats — and eventually the public — get any answers about what was said in that phone call.P