WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress struggled for a second consecutive day Thursday to defend President Donald Trump against Democrats’ impeachment inquiry amid a steady stream of damaging revelations about his conduct, leveling another symbolic objection to a process they said was fundamentally unfair.
One day after House lawmakers tried to block an impeachment witness by sowing chaos with a protest in the Capitol’s secure meeting rooms, Senate Republicans joined the fray by offering a resolution condemning the House investigation and demanding that Democrats hold a formal vote authorizing the inquiry.
But the move left the president’s allies in the same awkward place they have been for more than two weeks: unable or unwilling to mount a vigorous defense on the substance of the allegations and focused instead on trying to shake the public’s faith in the House’s impeachment process.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a fierce defender of the president and a lead sponsor of the Senate resolution, dodged questions Thursday about the president’s dealings with Ukraine. He called the impeachment investigation “a star-chamber-type inquiry” and accused Democrats of pursuing an investigation that is “out of bounds, is inconsistent with due process as we know it.”
Graham, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and the 40 other Republican senators backing the resolution are taking their cues from a grievance-filled president. Over lunch with a small group of them at the White House on Thursday, Trump complained bitterly that he was the victim of a never-ending political assault by enemies who are wielding an unfair process.
“He feels like it never stops, that he’s been in office for, what, three years now, and every time he turns around there’s another reason that his family, his friends have to pay legal bills,” Graham said. “He keeps telling us he did nothing wrong.”
After another private meeting Monday night with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, Trump began complaining privately that he did not think Senate Republicans were doing enough to have his back. For days, some allies of the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., had agitated on Twitter for Graham to do more to try to counteract Democrats in the House.
On Thursday, before Graham introduced his resolution, Trump heaped praise on House Republicans for their headline-grabbing protest a day earlier. He thanked them in a tweet for being “tough, smart, and understanding in detail the greatest Witch Hunt in American History.”
Sensing their advantage, Democrats have moved with remarkable speed to investigate in closed-door sessions the president’s actions. Now, the party’s leaders in the House are preparing for the next stage: high-profile public hearings that could begin as early as mid-November and feature hours of testimony damaging to the president.
Among the star witnesses who could deliver explosive public testimony in front of live television cameras could be John Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, who has been described in testimony as alarmed by what appeared to be pressure on the Ukrainians by Trump and his allies.
Democrats may also decide to call a string of other diplomats and administration officials, including William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, who testified in excruciating detail about a quid pro quo in which Trump and his allies held up security aid and a White House meeting in exchange for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Privately, White House officials concede they are losing the messaging battle with Democrats, whose inquiry has produced a series of devastating revelations about allegations that the president and his allies conducted a campaign to pressure Ukraine for his own political gain.
People close to Trump said that the coming weeks will be marked by an increased assault on the integrity of the inquiry itself as the White House tries to avoid litigating the facts of what took place between Ukrainian officials and Trump’s loyalists, including Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer.
White House aides are planning to add communications aides dedicated to impeachment, a move that Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, has pushed for. Among those under consideration to help lead the new team is Tony Sayegh, who recently left the Treasury Department, where he was the top spokesman.
Steve Bannon, who was pushed out as the White House chief strategist in August 2017, has also created an unofficial war room in the basement of his Capitol Hill town house to wage over the radio a messaging war on the Democratic impeachment effort.
Graham said that Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, has assured him that the White House is “working on getting a messaging team together” and said he hoped it would be as effective as the one that Bill Clinton’s White House assembled during Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s.
“I’m hoping that will become the model,” Graham said.
Graham and others are keenly aware that Trump is likely to remain the primary means of communication as the impeachment fight intensifies. Some of the president’s aides have suggested that he take his finger off the keyboard of his iPhone, stop tweeting so frequently and leave the messaging to others in the West Wing.
So far, that advice has failed to sink in as Trump has continued to rail against his enemies, blasting the highly respected diplomats who have testified. On Wednesday he called Taylor, who has a 50-year-long resume of public service, a “Never Trumper.” He has repeatedly demanded information about the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint about the president’s call with the president of Ukraine and the handling of foreign aid kicked off the impeachment inquiry.
“Trump seems pretty firmly in control of the communications strategy,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist based in California. “It seems that it really is all out of Trump’s hip pocket right now.”
The Senate resolution, sponsored by Graham and McConnell, accuses Democrats in the House of conducting an unfair, secret inquiry that “ignores the procedural rights given to the investigating committee’s minority in previous presidential impeachments.”
Senior Republican aides said the resolution could come to the Senate floor as early as next week. It is an attempt by Republicans supportive of Trump to make a show of support for him even as polls show that a majority of the public now supports the impeachment inquiry — if not the president’s removal.
Even Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a critic of the president’s actions, said Thursday that he was open to supporting Graham’s resolution.
"I’d like to see a vote taken in the House to see if there’s support for an impeachment process,” Romney said. “I’d love to see a more open process."
On Thursday, there was a pause in the back-to-back depositions as the House honored Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who died last week. But behind-the-scenes work continued to push the inquiry forward. Impeachment investigators have negotiated in recent days with a lawyer for Bolton about a date for him to be deposed behind closed doors, according to two people briefed on the matter.
In the meantime, Democrats are shrugging off the Republican complaints about the process as they march forward with at least another week of closed-door depositions aimed at adding to the evidence of wrongdoing by Trump and the people around him.
On Wednesday, the House took private testimony from Laura Cooper, a top Russia-Ukraine policy official at the Pentagon, questioning her on what Defense Department officials knew and when about Trump’s decision to block a military aid package to Kyiv. Cooper, like other earlier witnesses, appeared under subpoena despite a Pentagon directive that she not cooperate.
In a letter to Cooper’s lawyer obtained by The New York Times, the deputy defense secretary, David Norquist, warned her that because the House would not allow department lawyers to accompany her and the White House does not view the inquiry as valid, she should not participate.
Officials working on the investigation said that four more witnesses, including three current and former National Security Council officials, would sit for interviews next week.
Charles Kupperman, who served until last month as the deputy national security adviser at the White House, was scheduled to sit for questioning Monday. Alexander Vindman, director for European affairs at the NSC, is expected to appear Tuesday.
Kathryn Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, is now scheduled to appear Wednesday.
And Timothy Morrison, senior director for Europe and Russia on the NSC, is scheduled to appear next Thursday. Morrison this summer succeeded Fiona Hill, who has already told lawmakers about the alarm she and Bolton registered over the events.
The committees were also scheduled to hear in closed session Saturday from Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department.