The effort to demonize House Intelligence Chairman Schiff (D-Calif.), who is leading the impeachment inquiry into the president, and create political fog for the president demonstrates Republicans’ deep reluctance to opine on whether it was appropriate for Trump to ask Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Trump’s allies in the Senate are trying to focus public attention anywhere but on Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
And without a centralized strategy from the White House, House Republicans are taking their cues from Trump, who is treating Schiff as a punching bag in the impeachment fight.
Trump and the GOP are targeting Schiff’s mid-hearing exaggerated rendition of Trump’s phone call with Ukraine to make it sound like a mob boss shakedown and invoking a New York Times report that the whistleblower sought guidance from an Intelligence Committee aide, which Republicans have used to allege without evidence that Schiff helped write the complaint.
“We need to put everyone on record whether you approve of that type of conduct in conducting an impeachment inquiry,” added Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the new chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who drafted the censure resolution on Schiff.
The GOP, however, is having an increasingly difficult time avoiding the more explosive aspects of the Ukraine scandal. On Thursday, Trump openly called for China to open up an investigation into the Biden family — which is at the center of Democrats’ impeachment investigation. And Hill Republicans kept quiet.
“Almost all of my Republican colleagues remain inexplicably silent in the face of President Trump’s abuse of power — likely counting on distractions and false narratives that foreign governments have been asked to investigate,” said. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “The plain fact is that President Trump misused the Oval Office to ask a foreign leader to find dirt on a political opponent.”
Indeed, House Republican leaders are desperately trying to refocus the narrative. In addition to backing the censure resolution and furiously tweeting about Schiff, McCarthy fired off a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday demanding that she halt the impeachment inquiry until Democrats answer more questions about the entire process, which the GOP has tried to cast as “rigged.” Republicans are arguing that Democrats are hellbent on undoing the results of the 2016 election.
Pelosi shot back at McCarthy with a letter of her own, drawing attention to the one issue Republicans don’t want to talk about.
“As you know, our founders were specifically intent on ensuring that foreign entities did not undermine the integrity of our elections,” she wrote. “I received your letter this morning shortly after the world witnessed President Trump on national television asking yet another foreign power to interfere in the upcoming 2020 elections.”
Scalise, meanwhile, held a conference call with his whip team Thursday afternoon to discuss next steps and outline a series of all-conference member briefings on impeachment that leadership plans to hold when Congress returns from recess, according to a person on the call. Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) also gave an update on the party’s messaging strategy and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) talked about his experience as a manager during the Clinton impeachment.
“Clearly, Trump has been vocal on Twitter and he’s very effective. But on our side, we want to make sure our members have all their questions answered while giving them the perspective of what impeachment is supposed to be under the constitution, and how Pelosi is trying to rig it,” Scalise said.
Across the Capitol, most Senate Republicans have spent recess in extraordinarily quiet fashion. Many left town generally insisting they hadn’t read the whistleblower report and have spent the congressional recess hunkered down as they try and hold on to their tenuous majority.
Former Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has criticized Trump for his conduct in the past, said it was the right course.
“I would just say to all of my friends on both sides of the aisle, that I would absolutely say nothing. Nothing,” Corker said at an event in Chattanooga, Tenn. “It’s just not appropriate, in my opinion, for senators to be making statements at this juncture.”
But the quiet GOP senators are obscured by a loud band of Trump defenders, who have spent the past week penning letters to foreign leaders and the intelligence community and devising legislation to troll Joe Biden. It’s an ad hoc strategy by a handful of senators that isn’t being coordinated by Republican leaders, according to two people familiar with party strategy, but has served to redirect public attention away from the Democrats’ central argument that Trump inappropriately coordinated with foreign governments.
On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote to foreign leaders from Australia, Italy and Britain and urged them to cooperate with Attorney General William Barr’s investigation into the 2016 election. Graham wrote that an Australian diplomat gave the government information as part of the U.S. effort to monitor the 2016 election, a charge that the Australian ambassador to the United States rejected on Thursday in a letter to Graham.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) urged the whistleblower to reveal him- or herself, arguing back in Kentucky this week that “if you’re accusing somebody of something with the ramifications of impeachment, I think really the person ought to come forward.”
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) has penned legislation that would prevent senior government officials’ family from serving on the boards of Ukrainian companies, an obvious ding at Biden’s son Hunter and his role at Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
And Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have repeatedly raised questions about changes to federal whistleblower policy despite pushback from the intelligence community itself. Johnson and Grassley wrote to Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, on Wednesday afternoon asking him to start an investigation into who leaked details from the whistleblower report and the phone call.
“News reports used anonymous sources to report on information relating to the complaint and phone call that were classified at the time. There was only a finite amount of individuals that had access to the complaint and phone call transcript,” the two senators wrote.
Yet, Grassley also scolded Trump and other Republicans for attacking the whistleblower earlier this week, suggesting he isn’t going all in as a Trump defender just yet. And Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said Thursday “whistleblowers should be protected. I stand with Chuck Grassley.”
But that’s not what McCarthy sounds like these days. And after McCarthy wrote to Pelosi on Thursday afternoon asking her to stop the impeachment inquiry and respond to a series of questions about the impeachment process, Trump’s approval followed soon after.
“Leader McCarthy, we look forward to you soon becoming Speaker of the House. The Do Nothing Dems don’t have a chance!” the president tweeted.
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.