Trump’s impeachment participation strategy: Insult, sit out, wait

By Anita Kumar and Darren Samuelsohn

When Corey Lewandowski showed up to testify this summer during an early impeachment hearing, the former Trump campaign manager had two top White House lawyers hovering over his shoulder the whole time. They whispered in his lawyer’s ear. They strategized with Republicans during breaks. In short, the White House was omnipresent.

But on Wednesday, the White House is expected to be a complete no-show at the House Judiciary Committee’s biggest impeachment hearing yet — no attorney to represent President Donald Trump’s interests, not even a staffer to sit in the audience.

The approach is part of the Trump administration’s strategy for the final stages of the House impeachment process, according to half a dozen people familiar with the situation: refuse to engage unless certain demands are met, blast Democrats from the outside in the meantime and wait for a friendlier Senate landscape.

Trump’s legal and political aides argue that participating in the hearings — as the Judiciary Committee has invited the White House to do — would only legitimize the process, even as it leaves the door open to negotiating with Democrats. And it’s a tactic, they say, that is protecting future presidents from congressional overreach.

“Taking part in a sham, partisan House process doesn’t make much sense from a legal or messaging standpoint,” said Steve Cortes, a member of the president’s reelection committee.

After weeks of frustration, Trump has been placated by House Republicans’ increasingly pugilistic defenses of his behavior in hearings and on television, giving him greater comfort that he can rely on surrogates to punch back during the hearings.

“I think the president was very impressed with the work on the Intelligence Committee,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump ally and member of the Judiciary Committee, referencing the recent spate of Intelligence panel hearings on Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign. “The good spirits of the president are informed by the great work that my colleagues did.”

Vice President Mike Pence huddled at the Capitol on Tuesday to discuss impeachment strategy with Reps. Jim Jordan, John Ratcliffe and Doug Collins, all GOP members of the Judiciary Committee who have become stalwart Trump defenders. Rep. Mark Meadows, another go-to Trump ally, also attended.

“He really wanted to thank us for the work that we're doing, that we've been doing to bring truth to the process, fairness to the process as much as possible,” Ratcliffe said.

The White House on Sunday set out its requirements for engaging. In a scathing five-page letter to lawmakers, White House counsel Pat Cipollone argued Democrats were not acting in good faith and signaled that Trump’s team would not participate in Wednesday’s hearing, which will feature four legal scholars discussing the threshold and process for impeachment.

“It is too late to cure the profound procedural deficiencies that have tainted this entire Inquiry,” he wrote to House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). “Nevertheless, if you are serious about conducting a fair process going forward, and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the President, we may consider participating in future Judiciary Committee proceedings if you afford the Administration the ability to do so meaningfully.”

The White House faces a Friday deadline to decide whether to participate in future hearings, which are likely tackle potential articles of impeachment stemming from the investigation into Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Democrats say Trump conditioned a much-desired White House meeting for Ukraine’s leader, as well as millions in military aid, on Kyiv launching a Biden probe. Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani counter that the probe was part of a broader effort to eradicate corruption — they allege Joe Biden, as vice president, helped protect his son’s business interest in the country. No public evidence has emerged that Biden intervened on his son’s behalf in Ukraine.

Cipollone said he needs more information about future impeachment hearings to decide whether to show up, but it’s unlikely he’ll get what he wants. The House waited until Monday to announce who would testify at its hearing Wednesday.

Even if the House does give the White House earlier notice about its hearing plans, numerous Trump advisers say the president’s team shouldn’t — and likely won’t — participate.

The White House didn’t send anyone to fill the seats the House Intelligence Committee reserved for Trump officials during the two weeks of impeachment hearings that concluded late last month. Instead, informal Trump allies peppered the audience, including former 2016 deputy campaign manager David Bossie and a few House GOP members, including Gaetz and Meadows, who are not on the Intelligence Committee.

“This is an unconstitutional, illegitimate process,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters at the White House this week.

Still, the president has, at times, been tempted to tell his side of the story at the hearings. But his advisers convinced him the better strategy was to sit it out.

“He wants to fight,” said a former Trump aide who speaks to the president. “He always wants to fight.”

Instead, Trump has resorted to tweeting and talking to the media incessantly about impeachment. In London Tuesday for a meeting of NATO leaders, he spoke to reporters for 121 minutes — much of it about impeachment.

“You know what a fix is?” he asked reporters. “This is a fix.”

His advisers have followed suit.

Since Thanksgiving, Giuliani has blasted out more than a dozen tweets challenging Democrats’ impeachment probe, likening it to “the McCarthy era” and urging the Senate to change who argues first at a trial. Giuliani’s suggestions: let Trump’s defense team jump ahead of the House prosecutors “to prove innocence” and call several witnesses who would turn the spotlight onto Biden.

Giuliani, a former New York mayor, has been sidelined from handling Ukraine matters on behalf of the president’s impeachment defense since mid-October after media reports said federal investigators were scrutinizing his efforts to orchestrate the pressure campaign against Ukraine.

Republicans and Democrats agree that the White House’s participation is unlikely to sway any lawmakers. Members are expected to vote, largely along party lines, in favor of impeaching Trump, sending the process to the Senate for a trial over whether to convict Trump and remove him from office. There, the Republican majority will likely prevent Democrats from obtaining the two-thirds majority vote needed to oust the president.

Polls showed an uptick in support for impeachment soon after the Ukraine scandal surfaced, but the momentum has slowed, hovering around an even split both for and against impeachment.

Republicans say those figures are in their favor.

“Republicans have been dealing with the process with both hands tied behind our backs and yet very clearly the polling show when the Democrats can pick the witnesses, pick the order of the witnesses, pick the timing of the witnesses, pick what witnesses will be able to answer what questions, they’re still losing,” Ratcliffe said.

If the process moves to the Senate, though, the White House will likely reconsider its no-engagement strategy. Trump’s advisers believe Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would set ground rules that are more favorable to the president’s legal team.

“They have their chance in the Senate, where they know they’ll get some fairness,” said one former senior Trump administration official.

Team Trump says it’s fighting Democratic impeachment investigators for another reason, too. It’s part of a long-term effort to protect the president’s successors.

That’s the case Trump made on Twitter last week when he said he would welcome testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn, even as his Justice Department argues in federal court that the president’s aides are “absolutely immune” from congressional subpoenas.

“I am fighting for future Presidents and the Office of the President. Other than that, I would actually like people to testify,” Trump tweeted late last month.

Trump’s Justice Department is making a related argument in another legal fight at the crux of Democrats’ impeachment fight — over Robert Mueller’s most sensitive grand jury materials.

The House won before a federal district court, but the case is now headed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where arguments are scheduled for Jan. 3. In a brief filed Monday, DOJ warned of the consequences if the Mueller materials are ordered to be released to Congress.

"It is not difficult to imagine that a witness in a future investigation of alleged presidential misconduct might be deterred from testifying fully or frankly,” the DOJ lawyers wrote, “if she believed that her testimony would be readily disclosed to the House for use in impeachment proceedings.”

Melanie Zanona and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.