President Donald Trump’s victory lap will have to wait.
The Senate impeachment trial continuing into the middle of next week means it will bump up against both the Iowa caucuses and the president’s third State of the Union address. And the collision is creating a messaging challenge for Trump, who is eager to milk the expected acquittal for everything he can.
Lawmakers and aides opened Friday expecting the impeachment trial could be wrapped up late Friday night or early Saturday morning once it became clear Democrats did not have enough votes to call witnesses to the trial.
Now, the trial will wrap up in a split-screen moment of a highly partisan impeachment trial Wednesday just after the president’s annual speech to the nation Tuesday, during which he had originally planned to pivot to his reelection message.
“Democrats have the right to drag this out quite a bit,” a senior administration official conceded.
One Republican close to the White House said Trump’s inner circle is “totally split” over whether there’s any upside politically to an acquittal vote following the State of the Union. Some advisers believe a vote after what many aides expect to be an optimistic speech may increase the likelihood a handful of Democrats vote to acquit the president.
Trump is eager to have the Senate trial over as quickly as possible, aides say, yet he and White House officials have also tried to give a handful of moderate Republican lawmakers the space to come to their own conclusions.
During the trial, the president has stayed in close touch with the legal team and paid attention to the machinations and performance of his attorneys throughout the televised coverage. He remains impressed by White House counsel Pat Cipollone’s delivery before the cameras as well as his personal attorney, Jay Sekulow. Inside the White House, one of Cipollone’s deputies, Pat Philbin, has widely been seen as the breakout star of the trial.
On Friday, Trump did not speak publicly about impeachment and he remained relatively restrained on Twitter.
The White House focused on ensuring Republican senators remained unified in the majority’s decision to not call witnesses to the trial, but aides were having a hard time plotting beyond that vote given the unpredictable nature of Capitol Hill and the rules governing an impeachment trial.
“Today feels like the very beginning of impeachment: no clear strategy, and no one seems to know how POTUS wants things to play out,” said one former White House official.
The president will spend this weekend at Mar-a-Lago, accompanied by his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and senior adviser Stephen Miller, who has been busy writing drafts of the State of the Union address. Aides have reserved time over the weekend for the president to prep for the Tuesday night speech.
In Florida, Trump is also expected to sit down for an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity for a spot that will air before Sunday’s Superbowl.
White House aides are still talking through a variety of options for Trump to make a statement once he is acquitted. Those include a potential and rare Oval Office address, a statement from the press secretary, a press conference or just chopper talk with reporters as he comes and goes from the White House. The form of his response depends partly on the day and time of the Senate’s vote to acquit, according to one senior administration official.
Aides expect the president to take a victory lap for several weeks post-impeachment at planned events such as his upcoming campaign rally in New Hampshire.
In other words, Trump is unlikely to let this go.
The Trump campaign's post-impeachment message is likely to evoke a sense of political déjà vu. One campaign adviser said they're considering a handful of phrases that can be printed on banners and handheld signs for the president's campaign rallies, much like the “no collusion” and “read the transcript” mantras printed on tees during the Russia probe and impeachment.
“There is no question we will claim acquittal as vindication,” added a senior campaign official.
A second Republican close to the White House said the president still wants to get to the bottom of what, in his mind, kicked off the impeachment — including the identity and motivation of the whistleblower as well as the actions of Hunter and Joe Biden.
Trump’s “desire will only grow as Democrats continue with their presidential harassment,” the Republican added.