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Trump tests out impeachment response strategies as allies look for unified defense

There are talking points. There are private lawyers huddling in the West Wing. There is not, the White House insists, a war room.

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Kevin Liptak, Pamela Brown, Jim Acosta
Sarah Westwood, CNN
CNN — There are talking points. There are private lawyers huddling in the West Wing. There is not, the White House insists, a war room.

A month into the rapidly accelerating impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill, allies of President Donald Trump are still trying to formulate a unified response, as the man at the center of the storm defies most attempts to channel his attention and resorts to throwing insults on Twitter, where he on Wednesday described his Republican critics as "human scum."

As damaging testimony from his own administration officials continues to stack up, Trump is now being encouraged by allies to accept the inevitability he will be impeached by the House. They are telling him to narrow his focus on procedural disputes related to the impeachment inquiry, according to people familiar with the matter.

Whether Trump goes along with the plan remains to be seen. Efforts to guide his response to past crises have had mixed results. And in the past, Trump's acceptance of the inevitable -- when it does come -- has come after periods of denial, anger and attempts to reconcile with his rivals.

It's an approach many House Republicans -- wary of endorsing Trump's suggestion that foreign governments investigate his political rivals, but still seeking to defend him -- adopted weeks ago. It reached its apex so far on Wednesday as about two dozen Republicans stormed a secure room to protest another round of closed-door testimony, in this case from a Pentagon official, a move that only resulted in a delay of several hours.

Even as some of those who still stand firmly behind the President watch with amazement as the White House lurches from twist to twist, Trump himself is issuing threats to Republicans who cross him.

"The Never Trumper Republicans, though on respirators with not many left, are in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our Country than the Do Nothing Democrats. Watch out for them, they are human scum!" he wrote on Twitter.

The attempt by some of Trump's staunchest congressional allies to crash closed testimony with Laura Cooper -- the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia -- came a day after many of them huddled with Trump at the White House to discuss impeachment strategy. The President had advance knowledge of the protest plan, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Trump's allies have argued depositions underway in the impeachment inquiry lack transparency, and their antics led to a delay in the proceedings as they sat in the secure room eating pizza, refusing to leave.

The event had been in the works for about a week, according to a GOP congressman involved in the protest. However, it was initially called as a traditional press conference, and it wasn't until it was actually happening that some lawmakers realized they were involved in an attempt to access the secure room.

Trump himself did not amplify the efforts from the White House, where he was delivering remarks on Syria. Later, he made the rare decision not to answer reporters' questions as he was boarding his helicopter.

The new approach comes after past White House attempts to limit the damage have sputtered. A decision late last month to release the transcript of Trump's phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart did not result in quick resolution to the matter, as some thought it might. A legal letter from the White House more than a week later promising complete stonewalling of Democrats' requests was met almost instantly by a parade of sitting administration officials obey subpoenas and heading up to Capitol Hill to detail their experiences in closed testimony.

White House officials privately concede there is little they can do to stop administration employees from complying with a subpoena when they face being charged with contempt of Congress. The White House has made the decision it won't fire or reprimand those officials, even if they offer damaging testimony.

"(House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and House Democrats are running an unfair, unconstitutional and illegitimate 'impeachment' proceeding. The Democrats' sham hearings provide zero due process to the President and are being conducted entirely in secret, except for the out-of-context parts that (House Intelligence) Chairman (Adam) Schiff determines should be selectively leaked to the press. The President cannot be expected to participate in this illegitimate process," said White House spokesman Steven Groves.

The initial reluctance by the White House to formulate specific plans to confront impeachment spurred frustration among the President's allies, particularly on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers eager to defend Trump wondered what messaging strategy to adopt.

Most took their cues from Trump himself, who over the past month has railed against the impeachment proceedings, questioned the intelligence whistleblower's motives and declared his actions totally innocent.

He sought to shift the spotlight onto former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. The Bidens' activities in Ukraine initially sparked efforts from Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine's new president into opening an investigation into the former vice president, a 2020 rival, though there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.

Some demanded more coordination with the White House when, at the outset of the impeachment inquiry, Republican members were blindsided by the Trump administration's eleventh-hour effort to block the testimony of Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, without first alerting congressional allies.

The scattershot approach only appeared more so last week when Trump's acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appeared in the White House briefing room and acknowledged the US withheld military aid to Ukraine to advance Trump's political interests -- a claim he later attempted to walk back.

Some of Trump's allies believe Mulvaney's performance heightened the need for additional communications staffers who could strengthen the President's case against impeachment, a source familiar with the matter said, though calls for improved messaging predate Mulvaney's appearance.

Internally, efforts to confront impeachment have divided the West Wing. Mulvaney has remained at odds with White House counsel Pat Cipollone over the best legal approach to the proceedings, including the messaging strategy around the release of the Ukraine call transcript.

In an effort to assuage ongoing messaging concerns, Republican House leadership has been sending out daily talking points to members issuing guidance on impeachment messaging. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's team has been drafting the messaging and sending out the daily points.

White House officials and congressional allies have also held a number of calls aimed at coordinating strategy and messaging amid grumblings from conservatives that Trump's team hasn't provided sufficient guidance on navigating the impeachment process. However, several sources suggested the outreach has so far fallen short of demonstrating to allies that the White House has an actual strategy.

Trump and his aides have resisted calls to stand up a "war room" that would coordinate legal and messaging efforts, deeming the notion outdated. And efforts to recruit additional lawyers stumbled, including a failed attempt to bring aboard former Congressman Trey Gowdy, who was prevented by lobbying rules from joining the team.

The existing team, led by Jay Sekulow, has zeroed in on what it believes to be serious due process concerns with the impeachment proceedings, mirroring the efforts by House Republicans to raise questions about Democrats' procedures in carrying out the impeachment probe.

After meeting with multiple officials at the White House on Tuesday, Sekulow said the legal team would be focusing on the due process issue over the coming days to concentrate the public's attention on what it sees as basic fairness, complaining that agency lawyers are not allowed to be present for testimony from key administration officials.

The fresh focus on process from Trump's legal team comes after some House Republicans have taken their own steps to attack the Democrats' approach -- including with repeated demands to release transcripts from closed-door interviews, complaints about not being able to call their own witnesses and with the conservative members' sit-in on Wednesday.

By characterizing the executive branch as being at risk, Sekulow hopes to rally Republicans around Trump at a delicate moment.

"The American people are smart enough to know when somebody's being denied due process," Sekulow said. "Not just the President. The presidency" is being denied due process, Sekulow added.

Still, even as Republicans lament the process of the impeachment inquiry, some have expressed concerns at the allegations being leveled behind closed doors.

"The picture coming out of it, based on the reporting that we've seen, I would say is not a good one," said Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, of testimony delivered Tuesday by the current top US diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor. "But I would say also that until we have a process that allows for everybody to see this in full transparency, it's pretty hard to draw an hard and fast conclusions."

As Trump's team has struggled to develop a strategy that keeps pace with the mushrooming impeachment inquiry, the President himself has struggled to recognize the gravity of the fate that likely awaits him at the end of Democrats' investigation.

A source familiar with conversations Trump is having with his allies told CNN the President has been encouraged in recent days to accept the fact that he will almost surely be impeached by the House, and that it is time to start attacking the impeachment process more aggressively.

Until recently, the President had been telling allies that he thought he could keep the House from impeaching him, believing he could convince vulnerable Democrats from districts he won that it would be political suicide for them to vote with the Democratic leadership.

But several people close to him have explained in recent days that it is incredibly unlikely at this point he will avoid being impeached, and that the best he can do is to trivialize the process.

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