Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats have some advice for the party as they try to sell impeachment to the American people.
Keep it simple. Keep it direct. Use Donald Trump’s own words against him.
And most of all, don’t repeat the mistakes of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, when Democrats lost control of the narrative and allowed Trump to proclaim victory.
Still, ahead of the kickoff of historic public hearings Wednesday in the House Intelligence Committee, there’s a sense of acute anxiety within the Democratic Caucus about how to bring the thousands of pages of closed-door testimony to life and convince a still-reluctant public that removing Trump from office is their only recourse.
It’s a pivotal moment for the Democratic majority, one that could have implications far beyond an up-or-down vote on impeachment. Pelosi and Democrats have bet their majority on impeaching the president less than a year from his reelection. So far, the polls show support for removing Trump slowly growing, yet vulnerable Democrats know this will be the biggest issue they face next year.
“Most of what they need to know is already in the public domain,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said of the millions of people tuning in for the hearings. He cited the mountain of evidence that includes more than a dozen transcripts, pages of text messages from senior diplomats and the White House call record detailing Trump asking the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor.”
“This only puts a human face on that,” Quigley added. “There’s a reason that you don't just hand out transcripts at a jury trial. Watch these people. This is the cream of our diplomatic corps. They’re speaking truth to power at great risk.”
In a sign of the rare and solemn nature of the hearings, Democrats are planning to recess the House for the day — holding off on any floor votes."We may well do that, yes," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer confirmed Tuesday.
Top Democrats say they’re desperate to avoid a Mueller repeat — a high-stakes hearing that ended up with a bumbling witness and a failure to convince the public. They also don’t want a replay of the Judiciary Committee hearing with former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski, which quickly devolved into a circus hijacked by Republicans that was widely seen as an embarrassment for Democrats.
This time around, Democrat believe they’re better prepared: they have a far simpler narrative on the Ukraine scandal, the caucus is unified against Trump, and the White House has so far had a haphazard defense, flailing from one quickly debunked talking point to the next.
“This is not Mueller. It’s very simple to understand for most people,” said a senior Democratic aide. “It can be explained in half a sentence rather than a 400-page document.”
“We need to say to Republicans, ‘Are you defending democracy or are you defending the president?’” added another Democratic leadership staffer. “That’s the crux of this issue.”
But there’s also some frustration with the leadership’s messaging approach, which some Democrats — particularly in swing districts — fear could quickly cause Americans to tune out if there’s too much use of phrases like “quid pro quo” or “insidiousness.”
Democrats had recently been encouraged to stress Trump’s “insidiousness,” borrowing the word from the testimony of Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU and a key figure in the saga of Trump seeking to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rivals.
Just last week, talking points sent to lawmakers from Pelosi’s office also emphasized the term. The “testimony reveals a continuum of insidiousness that got more ‘insidious’ over time,” the email read.
However, with the impeachment hearings about to start, there has been a clear shift in Democrats’ overall messaging strategy from the top down.
At a weekly gathering of press secretaries in Pelosi’s office on Tuesday, the speaker’s staff stressed simplicity, according to attendees: Trump abused his office to help his re-election campaign.
m Multiple rank-and-file Democrats agreed there should be more of an effort to simplify the narrative and avoid overly partisan rhetoric, using terms like “extortion” and “bribery” instead of “quid pro quo.”
“You could say, ‘He used excessive force to get money from the bank,’ or you could say, ‘He robbed the bank,’” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said in an interview. “We’ve got to be very clear that this was bribery and extortion.”
The rhetorical shift, while noticeable over the last week, wasn’t done overnight. Top Democrats have been planning for weeks behind the scenes to hone their messaging ahead of the public hearings, crafting a campaign to “defend our democracy” — a phrase that came from Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Col.) in a recent strategy meeting.
That slogan is also featured prominently on a new Intelligence Committee website outlining the impeachment probe, and is expected to make up much of Democratic messaging throughout the public hearings.
Democrats have been urged to keep the story simple and “avoid bit players.” Some Democratic messaging gurus have even urged lawmakers to refrain from talking too much about former Vice President Joe Biden or Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer whose effort to tarnish Biden and his son Hunter help trigger the Ukraine scandal.
Pelosi and her staff have created a rapid response team — which some aides have dubbed a messaging “strike team” — to help craft talking points in the fast-moving Ukraine scandal.
The group has met once a week and includes about a dozen senior Democrats with TV experience and strong social media followings, like Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), as well as Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.).
Democrats with national security or law enforcement backgrounds, such as Reps. Tom Malinowski (N.J.), Terri Sewell (Ala.), and Val Demings (Fla.), have been sent out by the leadership to push the party’s pro-impeachment message.
Some members have gone their own way ahead of Wednesday’s proceedings. Freshman Rep. Elaine Luria, a U.S. Navy veteran who represents a swing district in Virginia, released a solemn two-minute TV ad — offering a vivid portrait of the Democrats’ case against Trump and of her own oath of office.
One of the biggest fears for Democrats going into this week’s hearings is what Republicans will do. The GOP’s burn-it-down tactics — typified by when GOP lawmakers stormed into a secure room last month to disrupt a deposition — could easily distract from the substance that Democrats are eager to highlight.
Republicans have been intensely preparing for Wednesday, with mock hearings for the House Intelligence Committee, a full GOP conference meeting and an 18-page messaging memo.
Democrats, meanwhile, have so far not added any additional caucus meetings to their schedule. In the press secretaries meeting on Tuesday, for example, Democrats spent more time discussing polling for the caucus’ signature prescription drug bill than reviewing talking points for the hearings.