Shared from the 10/1/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Trump amps up threats against accuser

President says he’s trying to ‘find out’ about whistleblower

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Trump

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Anna Moneymaker / New York Times

President Donald Trump, with Attorney General William Barr, said Monday he was trying to “find out about” the whistleblower.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump continued to escalate his scorched-earth campaign against a whistleblower who accused him of pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, even as new evidence emerged Monday that he and his administration are urging other governments to provide assistance to a related Justice Department inquiry that has been pushed by the president.

Trump said he was trying to “find out about” the whistleblower Monday, the latest move in an increasingly frenetic counterassault targeting the anonymous intelligence officer and top Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry. The comments came as his allies struggled to coalesce around a clear strategy to respond to a fast-moving and quickly mounting threat to his presidency.

The ad hoc counter-impeachment effort developing around Trump underscores the risk the president faces as Democratic leaders plan to launch a probe aimed at proving that Trump abused his presidential powers in asking Ukraine’s president to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential contender, and his family, as well as an unsubstantiated theory that Ukrainians worked with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election.

The White House has not yet set up anything resembling a“war room” to coordinate its response, and officials spent Monday in meetings trying to determine a path forward. The president’s outside legal team played down the threat of impeachment and dismissed the need for the kind of coordinated war-room-based effort that President Bill Clinton relied on 20 years ago.

If the House approves articles of impeachment, the matter would move to trial in the Senate, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed Monday he would hold.

“I would have no choice but to take it up,” McConnell said. “How long you are on it is a different matter, but I would have no choice but to take it up based on a Senate rule on impeachment.”

Some Republican officials have stumbled in recent days in their attempts to defend Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, and others have pushed the White House to offer more guidance to its defenders by standing up a centralized, organized response effort.

Trump’s re-election campaign has taken a de facto lead role in hitting back against the president’s detractors, but it has not been specifically tasked with a coordinating role, according to a person familiar with the matter who, like others, discussed internal strategy on the condition of anonymity.

On Monday, Trump’s defenders faced new revelations in a Washington Post story that Attorney General William Barr has held private meetings overseas with foreign intelligence officials seeking their help in his department’s inquiry into foreign interference in the 2016 election — a probe that Trump hopes will discredit the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia sought to assist his campaign. It was also reported that the president used a recent phone call to ask Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to provide help to this ongoing Justice Department investigation. The Trump-Morrison phone call was first reported by the New York Times.

While the tactical logistics of Trump’s legal and political defense were still being sorted out, there was a sense of agreement among the president’s aides and allies that attacking Trump’s detractors would be a key part of the strategy.

“We are not on the defense for impeachment,” said one campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We are on offense to show the American people this is a coup d’etat by elitist bureaucrats and Democrats.”

‘Done nothing wrong’

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham accused the media of “hysteria” and said Trump had “done nothing wrong” in a phone call in which he encouraged Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden and his son Hunter over the younger Biden’s former position with a Ukrainian private gas company — an arrangement Trump and his allies allege was corrupt.

Hunter Biden served for nearly five years on the board of Burisma, whose owner came under scrutiny by Ukrainian prosecutors for possible abuse of power and unlawful enrichment. Hunter Biden was not accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation.

As vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who Biden and other Western officials said was not sufficiently pursuing corruption cases. At the time, the investigation into Burisma was dormant, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials.

Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, has taken alead role is pushing Ukraine to investigate Biden as well as the theory that Ukrainians worked with Democrats to undermine Trump’s campaign in 2016. On Monday, the three House committees leading the impeachment effort issued a subpoena demanding Giuliani turn over all records pertaining to his contacts regarding Ukraine, the Biden family and related matters.

The committees also have subpoenaed information from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who is scheduled to leave Monday night for a six-day trip to Italy, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Greece. He is not due to return until Sunday, meaning he will be out of the country when a Thursday deadline passes for the State Department to deliver House committees documents related to Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The State Department subpoenas come as the Wall Street Journal reported that Pompeo was among the administration officials participating in the call with Zelenskiy.

Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney, called the Democrats’ impeachment effort “absurd,” and claimed that his team’s experience dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller’s extensive investigation into the Trump White House offered a template for how to deal with impeachment.

“We just went through a war without awar room and that was the Mueller probe, and that worked out well,” he said, describing impeachment as more of a “skirmish.”

Trump will be the chief messenger in the response effort and his allies will likely take cues from him, said Sekulow.

Some Republicans say that’s the problem. In the past few days, Trump has called for the whistle-blower to be unmasked, suggested that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., should be arrested for treason.

Behind the scenes, the president is sounding out a range of advisers for different options, speaking to friends, outside confidants and Republican lawmakers to get advice about how to proceed, according to a senior administration official.

“There are different ways to bake the cake, depending on what sort of cake you want,” the official said. “Different flavoring, different temperatures, different ingredients yield different types of cake, and the president as the master baker is testing recipes and deciding what type of cake he wants.”

Some Republicans have pushed the White House to set up a more organized approach and have lamented that there’s no clear plan or strategy to follow.

“It’s such a cliche that Trump doesn’t think anyone can defend him the way he can defend himself, but they need to try, because right now it’s just him tweeting about Adam B. Schiff,” said a Republican congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Trump’s reelection campaign, well capitalized from record fundraising and well-staffed after an early hiring effort, has taken a lead role in defending the president.

While the campaign has not been officially designated as the central engine of Trump’s impeachment response, it has sought to take the mantle as the most well-equipped to do so, according to a person familiar with the matter. The campaign, which has been operating since the first day of Trump’s presidency, has the manpower and experience to mount a rapid response effort complete with video content, talking points and campaign ads, said this person.

Trump allies are also considering running television ads that target roughly two dozen Democratic House members who won in districts that Trump carried in 2016, to argue that those members are not doing the work of the American people while they’re busy focusing on trying to impeach the president. Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, is one of those supporting this idea.

Rounding up GOP

In addition to attacking Democrats, the president will also need to keep Republicans on board, as GOP lawmakers have been far from united in defending Trump’s call with Zelenskiy.

Trump’s former homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, said Sunday he was “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s conduct on the call.

“It is a bad day and a bad week for this president and for this country if he is asking for political dirt on an opponent,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

On Monday, Michael Steele, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, posted a video on Twitter of a woman trying to use a broom to push crashing waves back into the ocean, describing the futile effort as the GOP’s “new strategy to address the #WhistleblowerComplaint.”

Republicans are having a difficult time defending the president because the White House summary of Trump’s call with Zelenskiy, released last week, is so damning, said Lanny Davis, who helped Clinton navigate the impeachment process as a media surrogate.

In the summary, Trump told Zelenskiy to do him a “favor” by working with Barr to investigate Biden.

“The statement speaks for itself,” said Davis, a lawyer who now specializes in crisis management. “There’s no way to spin it. You can’t spin the sentence, ‘Do me a favor.’ ”

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