President Donald Trump is back in town — and he’s plotting to make his case as he faces a looming impeachment trial and the possibility of a violent confrontation with Iran.
Trump will hit the campaign trail in 2020 with a pair of rallies in Ohio and Wisconsin over the next week. He’s then expected to give a traditional presidential interview during the Super Bowl — often the most watched TV event of the year. And two days after that, he’ll deliver his State of the Union address to tens of millions of people watching at home.
And, of course, there’s always Twitter. Even over the holidays, Trump tweeted more than 100 times, nearly every post disparaging the House impeachment investigation or boasting of his accomplishments.
But he’ll also try to divert attention away from impeachment. He’ll tout what he describes as his accomplishments — the economy, a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada and the killing of Iran’s military leader, Qassem Soleimani.
To his allies, it’s a critical message the public needs to hear.
“As 2020 begins, it’s crucial that he messages frequently and forcefully on the unfairness of this sham inquest,” said Steve Cortes, a member of the president’s reelection committee.
To others, it’s just the 2020 edition of the same old Trump.
“I think we have seen what he’s going to do — more of the same,” said William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and the author of “Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action.”
In the coming weeks, two topics will dominate headlines: impeachment and Iran.
Republicans have hailed Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, as bold and decisive. Regional experts and Democrats have warned, however, that the action risks swift escalation, putting the U.S. and Iran on the cusp of a military clash and further dividing the U.S. from its European allies. If the situation does worsen, Trump will have to square his actions with his long-standing pledge to end America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East.
For now, though, Trump’s allies think they have a strong message to trumpet on Iran.
“The 3 a.m. phone call just happened. Trump answered with American power,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and CEO of the drilling services company Canary. “Democrats can criticize him — but if he’s right that Iran will back down in the face of U.S. power, then Democrats risk looking weak and supporters of appeasement. That will give voters a pretty clear choice between who they want to lead the country.”
Trump’s flurry of activity comes as Democratic voters prepare to begin choosing a nominee to face him in November. The nominating process kicks off with the Iowa caucuses Feb. 3, quickly followed by contests in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, all leading to Super Tuesday on March 3, when a slate of states will vote.
Polls show Trump's approval rating hovers around 45 percent and that he remains in close competition with the leading Democratic candidates in the swing states that will likely determine the winner this year.
Trump flew back to Washington on Sunday after spending two weeks with friends and family at his Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida. Those who saw him said Trump spent his free time stopping to chat with guests, smiling and touting a boost in pool numbers.
“I don’t get the feeling there’s a hand-wringing at the White House and Mar-a-Lago,” said Howie Carr, a conservative radio show host and Mar-a-Lago member who spoke to Trump last week. “There’s a feeling the Democrats are overplaying their hands.”
Trump confidants say his place in history as the first president to face an impeachment trial and then reelection has made him want to punish Democrats in 2020.
Before the holidays, the House approved two articles of impeachment in a mostly party-line vote, charging Trump with abuse of power for soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election and obstruction of Congress for blocking the House’s efforts to investigate.
Democrats say Trump conditioned a much-desired White House meeting for Ukraine’s leader, as well as millions in military aid, on Kyiv launching an investigation into Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter. Trump and his allies counter that the desired probe was part of a broader effort to eradicate corruption and uncover foreign wrongdoing in the 2016 presidential race.
The Senate is expected to hold a trial this month, though the timing remains uncertain after the House delayed sending the articles to the Senate. As the Senate determines which, if any, witnesses it wants to hear from, one person is not on the Republican list: Trump.
Trump and his team, led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, have yet to determine what Trump’s participation in the trial will be, if any. Options include everything from Trump testifying and being subject to cross-examination — considered extremely unlikely — to Trump making a sworn statement from the White House or answering written questions. Trump could even make all or part of his own closing argument, but that also seems like a remote possibility.
Still, Trump has blustered in public about presenting his own defense. In November, the president alarmed aides and allies when he responded to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's suggestion that Trump come forward and give his side of the story in person or in writing.
"Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!" Trump tweeted.
A friend of the president’s chalked Trump’s response up to his typical boasts, but some of his aides were momentarily worried that the TV-obsessed president may just want to engage in the ultimate made-for-TV moment.
His aides fretted that if Trump engaged, he wouldn’t be able to control his temper — or his facts. He is already facing allegations that he lied to special counsel Robert Mueller when he answered written questions into the inquiry into whether his associates colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
“No adviser on the planet would ever recommend the president testify,” said an outside adviser to the president.
But Trump doesn’t need to participate in impeachment to get his message out. He has no shortage of high-profile event opportunities to make his case to Americans over the next few weeks.
Trump will headline his first “Make America Great Again” rally of the year in Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday. He’ll hold a second rally on Jan. 14 in Milwaukee while the Democratic presidential candidates debate in the early nominating state of Iowa. It’s a preview of what’s to come: Trump allies expect him to increase his campaign activities now that 2020 has arrived.
In late January, Trump is expected to travel to Switzerland to the World Economic Forum, where he will tout the U.S. economy.
And in addition to his Super Bowl interview, Trump’s campaign is expected to air a pricey TV ad during the game itself.
Two days later, Trump will deliver the State of the Union from the House chamber where he was impeached. An estimated 50 million people will be watching at home — far more than are tuned in for his campaign rallies or impromptu news conferences at the White House.
“President Trump has never really leaned toward playing it small,” said Michael Caputo, who has known Trump for three decades and served as a campaign adviser in 2016.
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.