White House looks both to be in the impeachment fray — and appear above it

WASHINGTON — White House aides and advisers said they believed that the first day of public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry Wednesday hadn’t been enough to change the minds of the public — or that of any Republicans in the Senate — as President Donald Trump tried to portray himself as someone mostly, at least for the moment, away from the fray.

One White House aide called the day a “nothing-burger.” Others close to the White House said they doubted the testimony would alter anyone’s opinion — even as they acknowledged that acting Ukrainian Ambassador Bill Taylor came across as a credible witness.

“Not one Senate vote was changed today,” said one person close to the White House.

In more than five hours of testimony, Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent painted a picture of a shadow foreign policy run by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and gave a detailed account of why they thought security funding for Ukraine had been contingent on that country launching an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

Trump, meanwhile, largely sought to appear above impeachment drama — sticking to his scheduled counter-programming schedule of White House events — as the first public impeachment hearings unfolded on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In between morning and afternoon tweetstorms quoting his favorite defenders, the president claimed he was “too busy” to watch the proceedings, spending much of the day in meetings with visiting Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by a brief press conference.

The president publicly brushed off the day’s Hill proceedings. “I hear it’s a joke. I haven’t watched, I haven’t watched for one minute because I’ve been with the president which is much more important as far as I am concerned,” Trump said, speaking to reporters at the White House, alongside Erdogan. “This is a sham, and it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Trump, at least for the day, appeared to be following the impeachment strategy of former President Bill Clinton two decades ago: be visible running the country, and let his allies serves as the attack dogs — an approach Trump’s advisers have advocated, given Clinton’s post-impeachment popularity.

The White House itself tweeted out a video where Trump delivered a version of the message that he was focused on governing, geared to his supporters. “They’re trying to stop me, because I’m fighting for you,” he said. “And I’ll never let that happen.”

The White House and Trump’s Hill defenders used several offense strategies in the president’s defense, including dismissing the witnesses, questioning their motives, and trying to divert attention to Hunter Biden’s business dealings.

His aides and allies said they continued to believe they would be able to undercut the testimony by arguing none of the witnesses had a direct conversation with Trump himself about his intentions — that, as the president’s Republican allies argued at the hearing Wednesday, the information was acquired second-hand or, as the president himself put it, “third-hand.”

“Dems star witnesses can’t provide any first hand knowledge of any wrongdoing by @POTUS,” tweeted press secretary Stephanie Grisham. “Their own testimony contradicts the Dems false quid pro quo narrative. These are essentially two bureaucrats with a foreign policy gripe.”

Republicans on the Hill and the airwaves also tried to keep the focus on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy, rather than any information that was conveyed to Ukrainian diplomats.

And they argued that there couldn’t have been a link between the funding and investigations because the aid was ultimately released without the Ukrainians making any public statement about Biden investigations, following the launch of congressional probes into the whistleblower’s allegations.

Trump’s campaign used the event, as it has other hot-button moments in his presidency, to raise money — texting and emailing supporters multiple times over the course of the day that the hearings were “Fake” and “a “TOTAL SCAM!” in a bid to pull in $3 million in 24 hours.

Still, it was unclear how long Trump — who prides himself on tangling with his opponents — would stay out of the mix. His account tweeted or retweeted dozens of impeachment-related messages Wednesday, and he hinted again that the White House might release an account this week of an April phone call between himself and Zelinskiy.

And despite the president’s claims he was not following the hearing, he already seemed aware of at least some of the optics Wednesday. “I see they are using lawyers that are television lawyers, they took some guys off television,” he said. “You know, I’m not surprised to see it, because Schiff can’t do his own questions.”

Trump was scheduled to address supporters at a rally in Louisiana Thursday evening, just hours before the second day of public impeachment hearings was slated to begin.


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