As the impeachment battle moves into a public phase next week after nearly two months of private depositions, Democrats are focused on telling a clear, focused and compelling story, and some Republicans are worried that President Trump’s go-it-alone communications strategy is not working.
“The White House needs to treat this like a political campaign, like we did with the [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh fight,” Mike Davis, a Republican operative who ran the message and strategy operation for the Kavanaugh nomination, told Yahoo News.
“The Trump administration needs to step up right now because they’re behind on impeachment. The Democrats are landing blows on the president,” Davis said.
Davis said that he is pushing the White House to name Mark Paoletta, a longtime veteran of Capitol Hill battles and oversight hearings who is currently general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget, as the “quarterback” for impeachment.
A source close to White House impeachment efforts said Paoletta is “a fighter who understands these fights because he’s been in them many times before.”
“From the [Clarence] Thomas and Kavanaugh confirmations to many congressional investigations to impeachment—he realizes these attacks aren’t legal, they are political. And he’s the guy you want on your team marching into battle,” the White House source said.
The need for a more cohesive strategy comes as Democrats have made a small procedural change — giving each side 45-minute blocks of times to ask questions of witnesses — representing a potent weapon in what both parties acknowledge is, above all, a battle for public opinion.
“They’re really making the case to the public even more so than to Congress or to the press,” John Lawrence, a former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told Yahoo News. “That’s going to drive how members react.”
“The most important thing in any writing or any presentation is to be able to tell the story clearly,” Lawrence said.
He pointed to the 45-minute question-and-answer periods, which will be awarded to both Democrats and Republicans, as crucial. The normal hearing, with each member of the committee each asking their own questions in 5-minute increments, “leaves people completely confused,” Lawrence said.
Instead, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., will have 45 minutes for an extended period of sustained questioning, and can bring in staff to ask questions, as they have done during the closed-door depositions.
“That could help lay out a cohesive narrative,” said a senior aide to a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “The narrative and strategy are the same — keep it simple. People understand abuse of power. We will continue to focus on the president’s abuses.”
The top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., will then have 45 minutes of his own to cross-examine the witnesses. That process will begin on Wednesday with William Taylor Jr., a former Army officer and lifelong diplomat who is now best known for his text message calling Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine “crazy.”
Taylor will be followed later that day by George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch will testify Friday.
Schiff will have discretion to allot additional 90-minute question periods, equally divided between himself and Nunes, before rank-and-file committee members are able to ask questions.
“There is a certain conflict between how members would want to do this and the effective way of doing that. Unfortunately that does involve constraining members in the interest of the public,” Lawrence said.
But some Republicans worry that Trump’s current strategy of fighting the impeachment battle primarily on his own is not doing the job.
“We don’t feel the need for a war room,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said on Fox News last week. Trump “is the war room,” she said.
That attitude is exasperating some Republican senators and conservative activists, who are pushing the administration to create a more organized messaging operation inside the West Wing aimed at turning the tide in the impeachment battle.
Davis, the Republican operative, said the key is to stay focused on the real stakes: not the outcome of impeachment but the political impact on the 2020 election.
"The Senate is not going to remove President Trump,” Davis said. “The issue is, is he going to be so damaged out of this that he loses reelection and the Republican Party is so damaged that we lose the Senate?”
Having Paoletta, OMB’s general counsel, quarterback the process would help avoid this scenario, Davis argued.
Scott Jennings, a former political adviser and Karl Rove ally in the Bush administration who employed Paoletta as his attorney in 2007 when Senate Democrats investigated his appointment to a U.S. attorney position, said he was in favor of the approach laid out by Davis.
“They need an organized response and an ability to push back on things that are happening,” Jennings told Yahoo News. “Mike’s experience with Kavanaugh is instructive. Senate Republicans had a very effective coordinated campaign to beat back the attacks. So if you want to do it, that’s the template.”
Jennings, who is a regular commentator on CNN, said that during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, he “felt like the Senate and the White House were constantly keeping all of us out here in the public conversation updated with the best possible information and angles to work.”
“I never felt like I didn’t know what to say or what was going to happen next. I think a lot of that was due to Mike and his team,” Jennings said.
Davis said “there are a lot of people pushing the White House to put one person in charge and a lot of senators share that view.”
An aide to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — who has been an outspoken defender of the president — said that he has encouraged the White House to have a more organized approach to messaging, but was not more specific.
But an aide to another Republican senator described a somewhat chaotic landscape inside the GOP.
“Getting everyone to echo one general message on this will be impossible,” the GOP Senate aide told Yahoo News. “The White House … line is he did nothing wrong. Most members believe he did something wrong, but don’t think it is impeachable. Some will actually say that on the record and others won’t.”
Jennings said if there was an organized effort the White House would have to give Republican senators “some latitude to disagree with the president on this.”
“I would say give these senators a little bit of latitude to say what they think: ‘Judgment bad? Yes. Impeachment? Hell, no,’” he said.
An organized effort, Jennings said, would allow Republicans to focus their fire on making effective arguments to the public.
“Democrats are trying to undo the last election even as we’re voting on the next one,” he said. “Most people would come to the conclusion: Why don’t we just have the election and see what happens?”
President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 after he had been reelected, and so “in his case there was no way for Americans to render judgment” on his conduct, Jennings said.
“There is a possibility for the American people to weigh in here. That is one of the strongest Republican arguments,” he said. “It’s the American people who need to decide.”
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