WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump sat surrounded by a group of his most loyal defenders on Capitol Hill.
In every direction from his box seat at the World Series last month, as the Washington Nationals faced off against the Houston Astros, there sat a Republican who has been outspoken in defense of the president over the impeachment inquiry launched by House Democrats.
"Seats aren't bad," Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump ally and one of about a dozen lawmakers invited to the game, wrote on Twitter alongside a selfie taken with Trump and first lady Melania Trump smiling in the stands.
As the impeachment inquiry has unfolded over the past few months, Trump has been nurturing his friendships with allies like Gaetz in an effort to keep his party united.
Since the controversy with Ukraine surfaced in September, Trump has spoken directly or in groups with at least 120 House Republicans and by the end of the week, will have talked with 40 GOP senators to outline his defense against the impeachment accusations lodged by Democratic critics, two senior administration officials told USA TODAY.
The effort, experts say, is something that could help both unify and invigorate congressional Republicans during this crucial chapter where he is counting on them to fight Democratic accusations that he abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden. Trump denies those accusations and denounced the impeachment inquiry, which is moving into a new phase with the first public hearings scheduled to begin Wednesday.
Keeping Republicans united
For weeks, as witness after witness appeared behind closed doors — telling lawmakers investigating impeachment their insider accounts of how the Trump administration circumvented typical diplomatic procedures with Ukraine in a shadow campaign to lock down investigations that would help Trump politically — Republicans have tested out a variety of defenses.
There was no quid pro quo, some say. There was a quid-pro-quo but that is a normal part of foreign policy, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney argued before quickly backtracking. Some attempted to dismiss key testimony as hearsay due to the witnesses not having direct conversations with the president.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is perhaps Trump's staunchest ally in the Senate, said he found the foreign policy toward Ukraine “incoherent” and argued those in the administration "seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.”
The president, meanwhile, has rallied the troops, making personal phone calls, inviting key Republicans to events and even hosting a pair of movie nights at the executive mansion, two administration officials told USA TODAY.
Along with joining Trump at the World Series, Republican lawmakers have traveled aboard Marine One, the presidential helicopter, and sat with him at the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the heart of New York City at Madison Square Garden and to the Alabama-LSU football game, one of the biggest rivalries in college football.
Key lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have also made appearances at Trump's rallies and at the White House for lunches in recent weeks.
Trump has spoken in person with 80 House Republicans, administration officials told USA TODAY. At least 40 other House Republicans have attended retreats at Camp David hosted by White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and other officials; Trump has phoned into at least four of those Camp David meetings.
The officials said Trump hopes to have contact with every Republican lawmaker by the time impeachment comes to an end.
"A lot of this happens on the phone, out of sight," the officials said.
While impeachment is a primary topic of these talks, Trump also speaks with lawmakers about issues like the proposed Canada-Mexico trade deal and new legislation on prescription drugs.
Indeed, that is one of the things Trump urges Republicans to say in public: That Democrats are obsessed with impeachment and ignoring the needs of the nation.
Trump also makes small talk with members, with topics ranging from Conan the hero dog who helped take down the leader of ISIS to the World Series run of baseball's Washington Nationals. The president even signed a Trump board game for one member, whom officials would not identify.
"The most valuable resource that the president has is his time," said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. "and if he could make that time available for members of Congress, that is something that they react to."
"That is a great tool of leverage that any president has, and when you're in times of crisis, you need to use it," Heye said.
But the key will be not only keeping key allies as outspoken defenders. It will be to prevent a batch of House Republicans who are retiring from defecting and keeping the GOP united on the other side of the Capitol, where a two-thirds majority in the Senate would be required to actually remove Trump from office should the House vote to impeach him.
It's not unlike what President Bill Clinton sought to do in 1998 when he fended off being removed from office after being impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice related to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Currently, only a few Republicans have publicly voiced concerns about Trump's conduct. When Clinton was battling impeachment "we probably had 50-75 people who we were worried about,” Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff to Democratic House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt as impeachment moved through the House in 1998, said of Democrats then.
Like Trump, Clinton also worked the phones with lawmakers.
“Clinton was famous for a lot of individual one-on-ones," Elmendorf said, where Clinton would sometimes "call up people at midnight and talk to them for an hour."
Elmendorf said the Clinton White House moved early on to ensure support from key constituencies in the House, including the Congressional Black Caucus, who had emerged as some of Clinton's most vocal and steadfast defenders.
The efforts were largely successful, though not entirely. When the House of Representatives voted on Clinton's impeachment in December 1998, only five Democrats broke with the party and voted to pass three of the four articles of impeachment.
A divided GOP strategy on impeachment
Democrats have so far presented a mostly unified front on the impeachment inquiry. As the public hearings begin, they plan to argue that Trump abused the power of his office to pressure the Ukrainian government to open investigations into his political adversaries and used both $400 million in military aid and a key White House meeting as leverage.
Republicans, on the other hand, have struggled to find a consistent strategy in defending Trump amid the barrage of new details released each day in the Ukraine saga. But the efforts over the weeks has offered a preview and hints of what is to come in public hearings.
"We're going to be seeing to a great extent, two very different conversations with two very different audiences," Heye, the Republican strategist said.
Alex Conant, another Republican strategist and former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio, said both sides of the aisle will be trying to reach different people.
Democrats will be making a serious case in hopes of persuading those who haven't made up their minds over whether Trump should be removed from office, and Republicans will be rallying the base and trying to keep a united front. The aim is to make hearings as partisan as possible, a strategy that hopes to discredit the Democratic case.
"The strategy is all about circling the wagons, just keeping Republicans on board and convincing the base that this is a partisan witch hunt," Conant said. "It's not a message for suburban Independents. It's a message for hardcore Republicans."
Rep. Andy Biggs, chairman of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee — the panel that will ultimately be tasked with deciding whether to file articles of impeachment against the president — was part of the group of Republicans sitting with Trump at the World Series.
"I think his demeanor is justifiably upset," Biggs said of the president. "He's upset and angry at the way this has unfolded."
Biggs and other House Republicans argue that the impeachment process so far is unfair to the president, the substance is favorable to the president, and that the origins of the inquiry are partisan.
"I think the Democrats are playing with fire here," Biggs said.
An 18-page strategy memo sent to House Republicans on Tuesday argued that the body of evidence does not show the president acted maliciously to withhold funds from Ukraine for his own benefit, rather that Trump has a "deep-seated, genuine, and reasonable skepticism toward Ukraine, and a vocal position that Europe should contribute more to regional defense."
The memo outlines keys points of the case Democrats are expected to make and suggestions for how Republicans can counter them.
In a move to bolster Trump’s defense ahead of Wednesday's hearing, Republicans moved Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a close ally of the president, to the House Intelligence Committee.
While Jordan is known for his feisty defense of the president and sly smiles as he attempts to pick apart Democratic narratives, his star power might not be enough. He and other members of the committee will only be allowed five minutes to make their case.
Jordan and fellow Republicans on the committee held a mock hearing Tuesday, preparing how they will dismantle the case that Democrats are meticulously putting together.
Their preparations and loyalty to the president are about to face the ultimate test.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Impeachment probe: Trump boosts GOP unity with movie nights, baseball