Political News

As White House struggles with impeachment strategy, Trump's campaign takes the lead

Posted October 7, 2019 7:23 p.m. EDT

— As the White House struggles to form a clear message and effective strategy to counter the fast-moving impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump's reelection effort is attempting to take the lead.

Alongside the Republican National Committee, the campaign held a conference call Monday where officials forcefully reiterated White House talking points, discredited national polling on impeachment, and touted ad buys and new donors as proof Democrats are heading down the wrong path. Representatives from the campaign and RNC declared this a "great partnership" of "efforts to hold Democrats accountable."

It was the campaign's latest effort to get on offense in a controversy that has frequently left the President and his White House on defense. Since the start of the impeachment imbroglio, campaign officials have blasted out talking points, coordinated with surrogates and even prepared an impeachment-themed video that was ready for the President to tweet just moments after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she was launching a formal inquiry.

The White House, on the other hand, has demonstrated little in the way of an overarching strategy; one of Trump's most visible defenders remains Rudy Giuliani, the personal attorney whose quest for dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden's family helped put the President in his precarious position in the first place.

While some of the campaign and RNC officials' claims on the call Monday were misleading or inaccurate, it was the strongest, most concerted effort to defend Trump since the dam on impeachment broke late last month with a surge of Democratic support. For several days now, there has been grumbling inside the White House that there is no real strategy to counter Democrats, complaints that officials said were validated when not a single White House official appeared on television Sunday to defend the President.

The White House has also not held any calls or briefings with reporters to discuss impeachment.

Campaign officials note that the two most recent presidents to face the prospect of impeachment, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, did so in their second terms and therefore didn't have campaign organizations in the process of ramping up to support an impeachment fight.

Aides and advisers say the campaign's war room will assume some of the functions that an impeachment war room based in the White House, such as the one Clinton formed, would. The campaign war room had been up and running for months before the House began impeachment proceedings, so multiple sources said it is best positioned to handle parts of the messaging battle Trump is facing as Democrats build their case against him.

The campaign this week went up with an ad hitting Biden over unsubstantiated Ukraine allegations in four early-voting states -- the latest sign that the impeachment drama has begun to consume campaign time, attention and resources.

During the campaign's call on Monday, communications director Tim Murtaugh railed against Democrats' "never-ending fishing expedition," calling the latest news regarding the President's call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and resulting questions the latest "excuse" to "tear down President Trump."

Murtaugh said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats are "putting politics before facts," claiming that there is "no evidence or any facts on their side" and that's why they are not holding a formal vote.

Not all Murtaugh's claims were accurate. He claimed that the initial whistleblower had not witnessed anything firsthand, though the intelligence community inspector general said otherwise -- that the anonymous official did have some firsthand information. Murtaugh dismissed the second whistleblower who has now come forward, telling reporters it "means absolutely nothing."

"Democrats have decided to pursue impeachment with no evidence or facts on their side," Murtaugh claimed, despite the fact that the White House-released transcript supports claims made in the first whistleblower's complaint.

During a brief question-and-answer session, Murtaugh also claimed that when Trump said he wanted Ukraine to "do us a favor," he was talking about the United States, not him personally. He said Democrats have pushed for an investigation into election interference, a request Trump was just fulfilling.

Murtaugh repeated these White House talking points -- including questions about Hunter Biden's qualifications for his work with Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, while his father was in office -- and said the call transcript "demonstrates quite clearly that President Trump did nothing wrong."

There is no evidence either Biden did anything inappropriate.

Campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany then cited poll numbers that she said suggested support for impeaching hasn't changed since summer 2018. A recent CBS News poll has shown that a clear plurality of Americans approve of the House's impeachment inquiry into Trump, but are split on whether they want to impeach and remove him from office.

McEnany reiterated information previously reported by CNN on the campaign and RNC's ad buy targeting Biden. The $10 million buy, which is $8 million from the campaign and $2 million from the RNC, will include $1 million in four early voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. This is the RNC's first TV ad buy in eight years, she said. McEnany cited a 29% increase in fundraising numbers over the last quarter, including 50,000 new donors over two days.

But the ever-expanding Ukraine controversy -- and the growing likelihood that House Democrats will pursue articles of impeachment over it -- could force Trump's team to reshape its message and rethink how and when officials spend his massive war chest.

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