Trump's impeachment inbox

By Daniel Lippman

President Trump doesn’t think House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry should get any media coverage.

Meanwhile, he’s ravenously consuming news about the subject — primarily through a friendly lens. From the Oval Office to the White House residence to Air Force One, he’s closely tracking how Republican members of Congress are digesting the latest revelations on his handling of Ukraine, and monitoring their statements for any sign of hesitation or perceived disloyalty.

“We’re getting fucking killed,” Trump often gripes — a complaint about media coverage that is escalating in volume and frequency amid the impeachment probe, according to a Republican close to the White House. “He does make that comment literally every day.”

Trump is especially frustrated that the depositions by current and former officials — which have taken place behind closed doors, but nonetheless have leaked in some detail to reporters — “have to be covered at all,” according to a senior White House official.

“We should have no speculative coverage of what’s going on inside these private briefings, according to the very people who keep it private,” said another White House official. “Either let everybody see what’s happening as it happens or keep your mouth shut.”

Trump tells White House aides in private that he sees no need for leaks from the depositions because everyone can read the transcript of his call with the president of Ukraine, which he has repeatedly called “perfect.” He also is critical of witnesses he accuses of “pretending they know what he meant” on the call.

To get news on impeachment, Trump often relies on his favorite Fox shows: Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, “Fox and Friends,” Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, because he thinks they provide an alternative to the narrative many journalists in the more down-the-middle press are giving. He has grown especially enamored lately with Carlson’s show, according to a Republican close to the White House, though he has complained publicly about some of the more critical news coverage on Fox.

He is also a fan of John Solomon, the conservative journalist who first disseminated the unsubstantiated reporting about Joe Biden and Ukraine, as well as Solomon’s fellow Fox News contributor Sara Carter, according to a former White House official.

“He likes all these guys on Hannity who are beating the shit out of the left,” this person said.

Trump will also sometimes consume news from conservative outlets Newsmax and One America News Network, which tend to take a more uniformly pro-Trump line than Fox News. In private, he has erupted at Fox for bringing on former DNC chair Donna Brazile as a contributor, and has railed against its weekend hosts on Twitter.

Trump usually watches TV in the morning and at night in the residence, where he has a DVR-like device to record shows he can’t watch live. When he’s in the Oval Office, according to a former White House official, he’ll often watch impeachment news in the nearby private dining room.

When leaving the Oval Office, he will usually stop to look at a nearby television showing Fox News, Fox Business, CNN and MSNBC to check the news of the day and headlines on the stock market, according to an administration official.

His tweets often track closely with the programs he’s watching, and he’ll often quote snippets of dialogue or political arguments that favor his narrative.

On Oct. 23, a particularly prolific day for Trump, he tweeted or retweeted 9 tweets that had Fox content, including a retweet of RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel of a clip of a Trump interview with Sean Hannity, a Stephen Moore article on FoxBusiness.com, tweets related to appearances by Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) on Fox, a Sean Hannity tweet on Ukraine and corruption, two tweets related to a Matt Whitaker appearance on Fox and two tweets with Fox News clips of Trump’s Syria announcement.

To stay current on impeachment, Trump also gets regular in-person briefings from different parts of the White House, including the counsel’s office, the legislative affairs shop and the press office, all dealing with their specific aspects of impeachment. In those briefings, Trump asks questions like “Who’s up this week?” — meaning who is giving depositions — and “What does that mean?”

White House aides who share the president’s frustration with the entire impeachment process say he often vents his irritation with the House probe because, as one put it, he believes it is all just “so distracting.”

“He didn’t do anything wrong, so he’s rightfully frustrated,” this person added.

But Trump is also closely monitoring Republicans on Capitol Hill in near real time, looking to stamp out any signs of an incipient revolt and intervening when he deems it necessary.

“He keeps track of everything that’s going on up there from who’s going up there [to] who’s at these various basement events [to] what people are saying in hallway conversations, in media interviews, in floor statements, all that sort of stuff,” said a White House official.

Trump also will sometimes direct staffers to send printouts of news stories, such as articles he particularly enjoyed, and other material on all sorts of issues, including impeachment, to members up on the Hill via email, hand delivery and in person through meetings and visits to the Hill.

Trump’s impeachment media diet isn’t all television shows and clips. Besides the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, which are still delivered to the White House residence every day before dawn, Trump also gets various printouts and Twitter reactions related to impeachment and other topics in the news in a daily briefing book put together from the staff secretary’s office that goes back to the private residence every night.

“They don’t discriminate with good, bad or otherwise,” said a former official, describing the process of putting together the briefing book. Aides make sure to include news on what “hot-button topics” are getting traction in major media outlets.

When he reads newspapers, Trump will sometimes circle stories that he believes are wrong and tell staffers to “call this reporter” or “get this reporter on the line,” said a former White House official.

On a more personal level, Trump relies on his closest GOP allies, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) for news and insights into how impeachment is unfolding on Capitol Hill — and they don’t just give him positive spin, according to an administration official.

Trump is in frequent touch with House members who are in the deposition room with witnesses, noted one Republican familiar with his conversations, who stressed that members of Congress are barred from sharing details of the testimony.

Last Sunday, Trump brought Graham, Meadows and a number of other members with him, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), to Game 5 of the World Series, where Trump and the members touched on impeachment but also discussed baseball, according to a Republican familiar with the conversations.

The outreach extends beyond the president.

“The entire White House is on a charm offensive with the members,” said another White House official, noting efforts to bring Republican members to Camp David, invite them to lunches and briefings, and try to keep them abreast of the White House’s perspective. These encounters are an opportunity for Trump’s team to “hear from them and what they think, what they hear and what they expect and give them an opportunity to ask questions,” the official said.

Trump also has been retweeting many Republican members as part of his strategy to keep them loyal. “It’s different from Mueller in that the main audience is them, and it’s important that he’s reflecting and retweeting what they’re saying on the Twitter feed,” said the official.

Although the White House has canceled its subscriptions to the New York Times and the Washington Post, current and former White House officials say he’s likely still reading those papers in some fashion. People close to Trump, including aides, are still printing out Times and Post articles on the news of the day, including impeachment, and giving them to him, according to an administration official. They’ll also often mention articles to him and if he hasn’t already seen a particular story, he’ll ask for it to be printed out and given to him, said the official.

While he’s very unhappy with the coverage of impeachment, Trump believes Republicans’ complaints about the process are starting to draw blood, according to the senior White House official: “When CNN is even saying this stuff shouldn’t be done behind closed doors that’s something. So in that way, we’re all recognizing that at least that’s pushing through a little bit.”

But Trump also thinks the mainstream media doesn’t even bother to work his perspective into stories on impeachment.

“Nothing about the process has been fair, and nothing about the coverage has been fair,” is what he tells aides, according to a senior White House official. Trump also thinks the media is “looking for any excuse possible to highlight efforts to unseat him,” said an administration official.

He has also insisted that White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham go on television more to defend him, according to two Republicans close to the White House, seeing that as a vital part of her duties. Grisham has appeared on television several times in recent weeks, and Trump has privately praised her fiery performances.

But the president is also frustrated that more of his allies aren’t defending him and his governing record every day on TV.

“Why aren’t there more surrogates talking about the achievements that have been taking place?” he has told people, according to a Republican who has discussed the matter with him. “He feels that maybe only he can do it himself, or gets frustrated at previous staff or previous surrogates at not being out there enough.”

Mercedes Schlapp, the former director of strategic communications in the White House, recently was put in charge of surrogates for the Trump campaign, where she is a senior adviser, according to a person familiar with the matter. She’s tried to ensure the campaign is prioritizing surrogates and getting them the campaign’s talking points, including on impeachment, this person said.

Trump’s frustration with impeachment echoes that of former President Bill Clinton, who also voraciously followed the news about his political plight.

Back then, White House staffers provided Clinton with clips and summaries of the latest impeachment stories each day, but he also got information from his lawyers as well as from periodically watching TV news coverage.

“I never held anything back from him” in terms of bad news, said former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was a senior adviser for Clinton, including during part of impeachment.

“I think you can imagine” what the president’s reaction was to bad news days, Emanuel said, alluding to Clinton’s famously volcanic temper.

But he also said that it was important for staffers to give the president news about domestic and foreign policy issues to prevent Clinton from being “absorbed” too much by his impeachment.

For similar reasons, some Trump advisers try to steer clear of impeachment news altogether, according to a senior administration official, who said he purposefully doesn’t read any news about the subject.

“I scan news clips each day related to my file and nothing more,” the official said. “I don’t track the impeachment news at all, and avoid reading the newspapers.”