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WASHINGTON — Even before the Democrats announced plans for an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, the White House and President Trump’s campaign were preparing a counterattack. And some elements of the Trump team’s impeachment strategy predated the current Ukraine scandal that sparked the Democrats’ action.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday morning, shortly after the White House released a rough transcript of the July 25 call the president had with his Ukrainian counterpart that’s now at the center of the controversy, Trump argued there was a “witch hunt” against him. He accused Democrats and “corrupt” media of falsely portraying the conversation as a “call from hell.”
“It turned out to be a nothing call,” Trump said.
The summary of the call indicated Trump repeatedly asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s potential Democratic rival in the 2020 election. Providing the rough transcript and insisting it shows no misconduct is just one facet of the Trump team’s response to the impeachment push. The president and his allies are also trying to turn the tables on Biden. Trump’s response also includes pointing at prior calls for impeachment to argue Democrats have been determined to oust him from office from day one, a defense against a potential impeachment that his campaign had prepared well before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually announced plans to open an inquiry on Tuesday.
Following the release of the transcript, Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, released a statement describing the Ukraine scandal as “just another hoax from Democrats and the media.”
“Because of their pure hatred for President Trump, desperate Democrats and the salivating media already had determined their mission: take out the President. The fact is that the President wants to fight the corruption in Washington, where the Bidens, the Clintons, and other career politicians have abused their power for personal gain for decades. The facts prove the President did nothing wrong,” Parscale said, echoing language of a prior statement he sent out shortly after Pelosi’s announcement.
The idea there is a “Biden scandal” centers on a dubious claim that, as vice president in 2016, Biden pushed Ukraine’s government to oust a prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that had Hunter Biden on its board starting in 2014. While Joe Biden did call for the prosecutor’s removal, he was one of many international leaders who did so in response to concerns about corruption. And Bloomberg News has reported that the investigation into Burisma had been closed prior to the vice president calling for the prosecutor’s ouster. In fact, in late 2014, the Obama administration pressed the Ukranians to assist the U.K. in a separate investigation into Burisma’s owner.
Despite the lack of evidence, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, began pressing the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens role in the prosecutors firing earlier this year.
Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s 2020 campaign, also suggested the Ukraine controversy is really about Biden in an email sent to Yahoo News on Tuesday morning, hours before Pelosi’s announcement. Murtaugh argued that Democrats are trying to exploit a “Biden scandal” because they have “wanted to overturn the legitimate results of the 2016 election ever since President Trump was elected.”
“They’ve always wanted to impeach him, and they’ve just been shopping around for an excuse,” Murtaugh said.
These comments from top Trump staffers encapsulate the three major elements of the president’s emerging impeachment playbook: predicting the effort will backfire on Democrats, arguing the opposition has wanted to oust Trump from the moment he was elected and trying to shift the focus on Biden.
Concerns about Trump’s interactions with Zelensky mounted in recent weeks following the news that an official filed a whistleblower complaint that included Trump’s call with the Ukrainian leader. The director of national intelligence has not yet forwarded the full complaint to Congress. As details of the call came out, Democrats and other critics said Trump was improperly asking a foreign country to interfere in next year’s presidential election by raising questions about the Biden family.
After news of that complaint became public, the Washington Post reported that Trump asked that military assistance to Ukraine be delayed. Commercial arms sales to the country were also held up during the past year and the State Department hasn’t turned over required reports documenting those sales to Congress.
In the transcript of the call with Zelensky that was released by the White House, Trump asked the Ukrainian president to work with the U.S. attorney general and Giuliani on a potential Biden probe shortly after discussing U.S. support for Ukraine. Trump noted the United States had been “very good to Ukraine” before bringing up Hunter Biden and the fired prosecutor.
“There's a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that,” Trump said, adding, “If you can look into it ... it sounds horrible to me.”
Following the release of the transcript, the White House accidentally sent out talking points meant for Republican lawmakers to Democrats. The talking points argued “the transcript clearly shows there was no quid pro quo or anything else inappropriate about the conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky.” In the talking points, the White House also made the case it is “appropriate” for Trump to suggest the possibility Biden “used his official position to derail an investigation in another country” should “be looked into.”
Earlier this week, as the controversy over Ukraine intensified, one source close to the president admitted the call with Zelensky could have hurt Trump. However, they predicted the Democrats were unlikely to launch an impeachment effort. Even after Pelosi announced the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry, the source was unfazed.
“Trump is like Rocky Balboa. He can take the punches better than anyone and counterpunch,” the source said. “He’ll absorb these hits and see Biden further collapse.”
Regardless of impeachment proceedings, Trump will continue to press Biden on Ukraine. While there has been no evidence Biden or his son engaged in wrongdoing, some critics have said it was unseemly for Hunter Biden, who had little relevant experience, to have a highly paid role on the board of a Ukrainian company as his father led U.S. diplomatic efforts in that country.
The source close to the president argued coverage of the ongoing scandal will present Trump an opportunity to highlight these questions and hurt Biden in the Democratic presidential primary.
“They dropped a nuclear bomb on working-class Joe Biden by painting him as corporate-class Joe Biden,” the source said. “That’s a fundamental problem when he’s losing ground to Elizabeth Warren, who has this anticorporate message.”
The Biden campaign has aggressively fought back against efforts by Trump and his allies to accuse the former vice president of impropriety. Biden scheduled a press conference in his home state of Delaware on Tuesday afternoon to address the Ukraine scandal.
“I knew when I decided to run, this president would attack me and anyone else he thought would be a threat to his winning. … Even though every reputable publication has looked at the charge that has been made against me and found them baseless and untrue and without merit, that’s not about to stop him,” Biden said of Trump.
A Biden supporter also dismissed the notion there’s any valid comparison between the business dealings of the former vice president’s family and questions about Trump’s Russian ties.
“A 787 Dreamliner and a pineapple are also the same thing,” the Biden supporter quipped.
While the Ukraine scandal was the impetus for Democratic leadership to open a formal impeachment inquiry, some members of the opposition party were pushing for Trump to be impeached well before this latest issue emerged. Many Democrats have argued the evidence collected by former special counsel Robert Mueller showed impeachable offenses, including potential obstruction of justice by Trump.
The Trump campaign, for its part, is arguing that impeachment was always the Democrats’ game plane. After Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, pointed to a video the president posted on his Twitter page, one of several rapid responses to impeachment from Trump’s team, showing earlier calls for impeachment and describing it as the Democrats’ “sole focus.”
“We’ve had that [clip] ready for weeks in case the Dems were that stupid. And they were,” Murtaugh said.
The Trump campaign also sent out a fundraising pitch to supporters within an hour of Pelosi’s remarks. The message asked supporters to give $45 to join.
“Get on the list of Patriots … ALL DONATIONS DOUBLE-MATCHED,” the message said.
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