A chunk of Congressional Republicans have publicly heeded President Donald Trump’s call to defend him as their Democratic colleagues in the House pursue an impeachment inquiry into his possible abuses of power. But while their outcries may procure some short-term publicity victories, they ultimately just mask a larger problem: a lack of direction and ownership coming from the White House, which is facing serious charges that it linked an aid package to Ukraine with political interests in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
After Trump demanded in a recent Cabinet meeting that his fellow Republicans “get tougher and fight,” he separately summoned more than two dozen lawmakers from the conservative Freedom Caucus to the White House, where he urged a stronger response to slow if not stop the investigation. The next day, Freedom Caucus members were among those who raided the secure room in the U.S. Capitol where the depositions have been conducted, delaying one by five hours.
It was the day after Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, delivered damning testimony. According to a person who was present for his deposition, Taylor had provided “the most compelling case yet” that the White House had withheld military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political opponents.
The raid was the first indication that, for the time being, Republicans have honed their efforts to demonize the Democrats’ closed-door process rather than the substance of the inquiry. On Thursday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham – himself an impeachment manager during President Bill Clinton’s Senate trial two decades ago – introduced a resolution condemning the inquiry, arguing that Democrats are “abandoning more than a century’s worth of precedent and tradition in impeachment proceedings and denying President Trump basic fairness and due process accorded every American.”
“There’s a right way to do it and a wrong way, and they’ve chosen the wrong way,” Graham told reporters, accompanied by a poster board of all of the rights Republicans had provided Clinton during his impeachment process. Democrats, he said, had endangered the future of the Presidency by declining to hold a formal vote on an impeachment inquiry and failing to give Trump what he deemed adequate rights.
But Republicans held closed door-depositions during Clinton’s impeachment too. And nothing in the Constitution mandates that Democrats do any of the things Graham mentioned; Congress has fairly wide latitude over impeachment proceedings, and lawmakers have not agreed to any rules package to govern the actual votes on impeachment. Congressional investigations are often done behind closed doors, and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff has explained that the committee is operating with increased caution to avoid witnesses coordinating testimony.
But the resolution represented yet another attempt by Republicans to fight back as it becomes increasingly clear the White House isn’t providing clear direction, and as the facts that are trickling out paint a dire picture for the President.
“If the facts are not on your side, if the policy is not on your side, then you have to talk process,” said one former Republican member of Congress who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “If you’re talking process, if you’re talking procedure, you’re losing.”
“What the hell is the defense on substance?” the former member continued. “The Republicans are in a spot where they cannot defend the President.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Republicans still won’t put up a fight. When Republicans barged into the secure room where the inquiry was being conducted Wednesday to decry the process, they not only violated House rules but delayed a deposition from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper by over five hours.
Republicans know these demonstrations were solely for the optics. Several of the lawmakers complaining about the restricted access are on the committees that can sit in on these depositions, and Republican leaders had defended the privacy of the Benghazi hearings half a decade ago. But they still provided the short-term optical effect they were seeking. For at least a few hours, they — and not the allegations swirling around President Trump and the impeachment inquiry — were the story, with some Democrats lamenting the coverage it received over Taylor’s potentially game-changing testimony the previous day.
Democrats, meanwhile, were quick to use Wednesday’s chaos orchestrated by some Republicans to point to what they feel are recent victories. “Witnesses are now coming forward to testify under oath and providing devastating testimony about the corruption of this President and I think this was part of the effort to stop the process,” Rep. David Cicilline, who attended Cooper’s deposition Thursday, told reporters.
But Republicans have clearly decided focusing on the process is paramount. “I don’t know that this is a messaging problem, this is a process problem,” Rep. Mark Meadows, an ally of the President and leader of the Freedom Caucus that met with Trump before Wednesday’s slow-motion basement raid that Trump loved, told TIME. “If you focus on communication and not process you’re focusing on the wrong thing.”
Even so, there are risks associated with that strategy. Once all of the information is publicized, the GOP will be forced to come up with a new line of defense. Democrats have said multiple times they will release the transcripts from the depositions and hold public hearings, although they will not to commit to a timeline. But whenever that happens, Republicans won’t be able to point to a closed-door process as a point of contention. Right now, Republicans are largely declining to talk about what has emerged from the inquiry, claiming they will not comment on items that have been leaked. When Republicans do acknowledge the leaks appear to make Trump look weak, it is accompanied by an assertion that it is only part of the story.
“Quite frankly, I’m not going to vote to convict or un-convict based on an article,” Republican Rep. Mark Amodei told TIME. Amodei had made headlines when he replied to a question about impeachment by saying: “let’s put it through the process and see what happens,” although he later clarified and said he wanted House committees to investigate the whistleblower complaint that Trump was linking foreign aid to a request of a “favor” to dig up dirt on the Bidens.
When asked Thursday how the messaging would shift once there was more transparency in the inquiry, Graham evaded the question and pivoted back to the argument that Democrats are selectively leaking from the depositions to undermine Trump’s poll numbers.
Part of the reason Republicans may continue to struggle is not only because of the facts that could emerge, but because of a lack of strategy at the White House. Even Graham – one of Trump’s staunchest defenders – has said the White House needs to do a better job with messaging as it fights not just impeachment but also critics of the President’s sudden Syria policy shift.
Graham praised the messaging model then-President Clinton followed during his impeachment, where his staff created a “war room” solely dedicated to that topic while the rest of the administration proceeded with business as usual. “I think one of the reasons that [Clinton] survived is that the public may not have liked what the President had done but believed he was still able to do his job as he governed during impeachment,” Graham told reporters.
Recognizing the potential peril that comes with criticizing this White House in any way, Graham subsequently clarified his remarks on Twitter, claiming the White House was working on a new strategy, not a new team.
Regardless, Graham was still espousing the view of several Republicans both inside and outside the White House that there needs to be stronger messaging from the top down. So far, the White House has been doling out most of the responsibilities to the White House Counsel’s Office. This has left Republicans on the Hill feeling like they have virtually no direction, aside from the President’s desire to feel in control of a situation largely out of his hands.
In the Senate, Republicans are watching the House closely and preparing for the circus to cross the Capitol. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been prepping with lawmakers, teaching them the process by which they would serve as a jury in an impeachment trial. His staff has been consulting histories of past procedures, especially the Clinton saga. Several aides at the Capitol are reading journalist Peter Baker’s The Breach, a history of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial, because it is widely expected that the Senate would emulate — if not copy — what is now seen as an orderly and bipartisan blueprint for how to run such a politically charged process.
McConnell and his leadership team are preaching unity in the face of Democrats’ incoming fire. He successfully held off on a Republican letter rebuking Trump over his shift in Syria policy, and instead suggested a bipartisan resolution tougher than a version that already cleared the House.
Graham’s resolution, introduced Thursday, was hardly united. Nine incumbent Republican Senators declined to become a co-sponsor of Graham’s measure: retiring lawmakers Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi and Johnny Isakson; in tough re-election-bids Cory Gardner and Susan Collins; and independent-minded Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan and Rob Portman.
It’s not that those nine support impeaching and removing Trump, or alone are sufficient to band with Democrats. Instead, they represent a sense in the Senate that they should know if the President is abusing his power, regardless of his political affiliation. The pursuit of that fact, in the end, may be what keeps the process on track.
— With reporting by John Walcott and Brian Bennett