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Trump impeachment: President urges allies to 'get tougher' amid erratic response to Ukraine inquiry

American leader's behaviour reportedly causing alarm among Republicans

Toluse Olorunnipa,Robert Costa
Tuesday 22 October 2019 10:41 BST
Donald Trump calls emoluments clause 'phony'

Donald Trump lashed out against the impeachment process during a raucous cabinet meeting on Monday, turning the White House gathering into a presidential war room as he continues to unnerve many of his Republican allies by insisting on a personal and largely uncoordinated response to his mounting challenges.

In extemporaneous remarks that lasted more than an hour, Mr Trump railed against what he called a “phoney investigation” of his dealings with Ukraine and blasted the “phoney emoluments clause” of the Constitution, which played a role in forcing him to scrap plans to host a global summit at his private golf club in Florida. And as cabinet secretaries looked on, Mr Trump called on Republicans to “get tougher” before making a stream of false allegations about several of his predecessors, from George Washington to Barack Obama.

Behind the scenes, Mr Trump's erratic and bombastic behaviour is causing growing alarm among Republican lawmakers, donors and advisers who have called for a more disciplined impeachment response from the White House.

Administration officials on Monday played down GOP anxiety as passing and typical of difficult junctures for Mr Trump, but congressional allies said they remained uneasy about the president's freewheeling style amid multiple investigative and political threats - and said they were making that clear to the president, who remains confident in his abilities.

So far, their calls have yielded mixed results. Bowing to Republican criticism, the president abandoned his push to host next year's G7 summit of industrialised nations at his Trump National Doral Miami resort. But he kept talking up his private club on Monday and slammed the constitutional clause that forbids presidents from profiting from the office.

“George Washington, they say, had two desks. He had a presidential desk and a business desk,” Mr Trump said. “You people with this phoney emoluments clause.”

Mr Trump continues to spearhead his own impeachment defence, which lacks a coherent theme or a streamlined messaging campaign. In the wake of a widely panned news conference last week - in which acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted that Mr Trump had held up aid to Ukraine in part to force the government there to investigate Democrats - a growing number of the president's allies are pushing for sweeping changes in the West Wing.

Some major Republican donors have made it clear to party leaders and White House officials that they are unhappy with what they see as uncertainty and mixed messages. They have been informally floating suggestions for potential Mulvaney replacements, according to a White House official and two GOP lawmakers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe private discussions.

“There are big donors who want an establishment guy in there now,” the White House official said, though they added that this dynamic “happens every time there are problems, and there is no reason to believe the president is even listening.”

Mr Trump told some officials last week that he was not troubled by Mr Mulvaney's briefing room performance and that he was happy to have someone defending him on television. Mr Mulvaney's hands-off approach to the president, which irks some GOP advisers, is one of the things that Trump values in his acting chief, according to current and former administration officials.

Still, the president has bristled at negative media coverage since Mr Mulvaney's news conference and has sought to reshape the narrative on his own. On Monday, Mr Trump followed his hour-long televised cabinet remarks with a taped interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Mr Trump's reluctance to assemble a war room inside the West Wing is shaped in part by his confidence in his ability to defend himself, according to advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The president has told several friends in recent days that he believes Democrats are divided and somewhat scattered about how to proceed in their impeachment inquiry, according to people who have spoken with him.

He has said he believes that House Democrats might fumble their probe and eventually decide against bringing articles of impeachment to a floor vote, according to two Trump advisers briefed on his discussions who were not authorised to speak publicly. But most of his friends have gently cautioned against that optimism and said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is determined to move forward, the advisers said.

“He'd rather send out late-night tweets and TV clips that he wants in the echo chamber than have some kind of war room,” said former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg. “What you're looking at is a TV president having 24/7 TV, new media and social media responses who doesn't see the point of a war room. That's his style, and that's his strategy right now.”

Many Republicans, however, have told officials in the White House and allies in Mr Trump's orbit that they cannot mount effective arguments in defence of the president, whose brash approach often leaves them in the dark. On Monday, Mr Trump sought to defend himself from emoluments clause charges by making baseless accusations against his predecessors, accusing Mr Obama and George Washington of using their office to conduct private business deals.

“In this situation, when only the president and his personal attorney seem to have all the facts, it's hard to have a coordinated defence,” said Michael Steel, a former top aide to House GOP leaders. “Without sharing the same ammunition and the same facts, you're not going to be able be effective, even if you gather people on laptops in a room.”

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For their part, Democrats have moved forward with the impeachment inquiry, which they have cast as a sombre probe into how Mr Trump has abused his office for personal and political gain.

Ms Pelosi distributed a “fact sheet” Monday describing Mr Trump's push for a Ukrainian investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter as a gross abuse of presidential power.

The document included three categories of misconduct: “the shakedown,” “the pressure campaign” and “the cover up.”

On Tuesday, Democrats are scheduled to depose Bill Taylor, the top official at the US Embassy in Ukraine. In text messages with two other American diplomats, Mr Taylor raised alarms about the White House holding back military aid to Ukraine while Mr Trump pushed for political investigations. At one point, he said it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign” and a “nightmare scenario.”

In the wake of damning testimony from officials in his own administration, Mr Trump has lamented that his party was not doing enough to defend him from what he called a “vicious” impeachment process led by Democrats.

“Republicans have to get tougher and fight,” he said on Monday. “We have some that are great fighters, but they have to get tougher and fight because the Democrats are trying to hurt the Republican Party for the election.”

As the White House has resisted calls to build a political operation to counter the Democrats on impeachment, some outside Trump allies, including former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, have mulled starting their own initiatives to boost the president.

Mr Bannon, who has had a strained and turbulent relationship with Mr Trump ever since he was ousted from the West Wing in 2017, had talks over the weekend with associates about launching a podcast that he hopes would serve as an outside war room of sorts for the embattled president, according to three people familiar with his plans.

“There is not enough focus, and there's no communication between the White House and the Hill or with the grass roots,” Mr Bannon said Monday night in a brief phone call. “This is a public media play that will have an everyday focus to help people understand what's going on.”

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is one of the people Mr Bannon has contacted in recent days about being a guest on the podcast. Both Mr Lewandowski and former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie have long been discussed by Trump aides as possible hires for a White House defence effort, and Mr Lewandowski, in particular, remains a Trump confidant.

Mr Lewandowski confirmed Monday that he had spoken with Mr Bannon about the possible podcast and said: “Proactive communication is necessary to inform the American people about what's happening.”

The White House's willingness to listen could be quite limited: Mr Bannon remains intensely disliked by many top Trump advisers who do not trust him and object to his hard-line nationalism.

Regardless of outside efforts, the clamour for a more efficient and united impeachment front is expected to carry on this week, as some Trump loyalists float names for a new chief of staff and the president and top aides consider their next steps.

Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has received calls from presidential allies frustrated with Mr Mulvaney, who remains in an “acting” position 10 months after taking the job, according to people familiar with the matter. But Mr Kushner is not actively leading a search for a new chief of staff, according to someone close to him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

White House press aides said Friday that Mr Mulvaney's standing in the White House was unchanged in the wake of his news conference, which prompted a statement from Mr Mulvaney hours later attempting to retract what he had said about a "quid pro quo" on Ukraine.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mr Mulvaney acknowledged that his appearance had been less than “perfect” but said he had not considered resigning.

“I still think I'm doing a pretty good job as the chief of staff, and I think the president agrees,” he said.

The Washington Post

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