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Trump deflects and defies as Democrats speed up impeachment strategy

  • Author: Philip Rucker, Rachael Bade, Robert Costa, The Washington Post
  • Updated: September 26, 2019
  • Published September 25, 2019

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump struck a stance of defiance Wednesday, proclaiming his innocence and leveling distortions and falsehoods after the publicly released notes of his phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart turbocharged the push on Capitol Hill for his impeachment.

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The five pages of a rough transcript of Trump’s call asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with Attorney General William Barr and personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden landed like a hand grenade on Capitol Hill and led House Democrats to recalibrate their strategy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her fellow Democratic leaders agreed to speed up their impeachment investigation and significantly narrow it to Trump's dealings with Ukraine, according to five Democrats familiar with their discussions during a closed-door emergency meeting Wednesday in Pelosi's office.

Democratic leaders see the evidence from the Zelensky call as damning enough to impeach - and easy enough for the public to digest - in isolation, without drawing in allegations of obstruction of justice, self-dealing and other wrongdoing. Leaders began discussing a swift timeline to, in the words of one member, "strike while the iron's hot" and possibly vote on articles of impeachment before the end of the year.

"It's very understandable," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "It's a betrayal of the presidency of the United States, which is now making deals to affect an election, to go after an opponent with a foreign leader who is relying on the United States."

Trump presented himself as an aggrieved victim of "viciousness" from Democrats and the media during a meandering and uncharacteristically muted news conference late Wednesday in New York. He defended his conduct in the July 25 call with Zelensky as "wonderful," "beautiful" and "perfect" and pledged to release a rough transcript of an earlier call from April with the Ukrainian leader to help him make his case.

"No push, no pressure, no nothing - it's all a hoax, folks. It's all a big hoax," Trump told reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. He called scrutiny of the conversation "a joke. Impeachment for that?"

The clash comes one day after Pelosi announced that the House was opening an impeachment inquiry into what Democrats characterize as an abuse of presidential power by Trump that compromised national security.

The impeachment showdown opened a new phase of the Trump presidency. He and his advisers have scrambled to adjust on the fly and from afar during a week of diplomacy at the United Nations.

"We have a pre-5 o'clock presidency and a post-5 o'clock presidency," said Steve Bannon, Trump's former White House strategist. "Pelosi's announcement to begin a formal process at 5 p.m. was the shot at Fort Sumter. Now you cannot freelance, you cannot go rogue. You have to be disciplined. You have to be high and tight."

In the words of most Republican officeholders, there was a robotic echo of White House talking points. "Wow. Impeachment over this?" tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "What a nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger."

Still, cracks began to emerge in the president's coalition. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called the president's conduct on the call "troubling in the extreme" and "deeply troubling."

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told reporters that "Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons and say there's no 'there' there when there's obviously a lot that's very troubling there."

Meanwhile, four Republican senators said privately in interviews that the White House erred by releasing the rough transcript - one calling it a "huge mistake" that they now feel forced to defend. They argued that it sets a precedent for future presidents about disclosure of calls with foreign leaders and could be seen as a concession to Democrats. But they saved most of those complaints for closed-door talks, a recognition of Trump as the linchpin of their party and critical for their prospects in the 2020 election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. attends a news conference with members of the Senate Republican Leadership, Tuesday Sept. 24, 2019, after their policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., condemned Pelosi’s opening of impeachment proceedings as “an impeachment parade in search of a rationale.” Some of his longtime allies were holding out hope that the effort will fade in the House and said McConnell had not begun preparing for an impeachment trial in the Senate.

"Zero. None. No discussions of a trial. You prepare for the probable, not the improbable. I just can't imagine a universe in which they end up doing that," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "Nancy Pelosi is simply too shrewd to let things get out of control."

On the House side, Republicans attempted to make light of news developments. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., one of several Republicans who visited the White House on Wednesday morning to view the rough transcript and be briefed on talking points, passed out "mad libs impeachment" games during a private GOP conference meeting.

"Resolved, that Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, is impeached for _______ (made-up crime) because the Democrat Majority in the House of Representatives still refuses to accept the results of the 2016 election and since the Democrat Majority's previous impeachment attempts through ________ (sham hearing), _______ (dud report), and _________ (political stunt) failed," read the game.

In New York on Wednesday, Trump's demeanor shifted throughout the day. He fired off angry tweets in the morning and was punchy during his much-anticipated face-to-face meeting with Zelensky.

"We're with the president of Ukraine, and he's made me more famous, and I've made him more famous," Trump said to laughter as they began their bilateral session.

Zelensky, a comedian before ascending to the presidency, quipped, "It's a great pleasure to me to be here, and it's better to be on TV than by phone."

Trump then speculated that Hillary Clinton's missing emails may be housed somewhere in Ukraine. He recalled that she had said she deleted them because many were about yoga or planning her daughter's wedding. "She does a lot of yoga, right?" Trump joked about his 2016 rival, with Zelensky looking on.

Trump also falsely accused Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., of threatening to cut financial assistance to Ukraine over reports that officials impeded cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Trump cited a letter the senators sent to Ukraine's top prosecutor in May 2018, but at no point in the correspondence did they threaten defunding.

A couple of hours later, at the news conference, Trump was relatively subdued as he delivered a more-than-20-minute monologue decrying the impeachment proceedings and complaining that the media is not paying more attention to what he touts as diplomatic accomplishments.

When a reporter asked him to explain to the American people why he believed it was appropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader for information about a domestic political rival, Trump deflected and demurred. He claimed an Obama administration conspiracy, touted his latest poll numbers, bragged about his strategy to win the electoral college in 2016 and tweaked Clinton for neglecting to campaign in Wisconsin.

Asked whether he was braced for a long impeachment saga, Trump replied: "I thought we won. I thought it was dead. It was dead. The Mueller report, no obstruction, no collusion." He went on to mock two Democratic committee chairmen leading the impeachment investigation, Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and accuse them of acting "so serious" while in private "they must laugh their asses off, but it is so bad for our country."

At the Capitol on Wednesday, Pelosi and her top lieutenants agreed on a significant shift for the House impeachment strategy. In recent months, Pelosi had implored committee chairs to probe their own jurisdictional matters at their own pace: The Intelligence Committee would focus on Russia and Ukraine, the Judiciary Committee on potential obstruction detailed in the Mueller report and hush payments to women alleging affairs, and the Oversight Committee on allegations that Trump has used his office to enrich himself.

None of those issues seemed to break through meaningfully with voters, and public sentiment has remained largely against impeaching Trump. But Pelosi and senior Democrats now believe that the Ukraine call and whistleblower complaint could change that dynamic.

"It goes right to the top of the list," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of Pelosi's leadership team and the Judiciary Committee. "We are not talking about some discrete historical transgression. We're looking at an ongoing and continuing pattern of assault on the rule of law."

Pelosi told colleagues that keeping the inquiry narrowly focused on Ukraine allegations could also help keep the overall impeachment process out of the courts, where a slew of other investigative matters have been bogged down for months. They did not rule out ultimately including other issues in drafting articles of impeachment.

Schiff seized on Trump's conduct in the Zelensky call as a "classic mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader," calling the rough transcript "far more damning than I and others had imagined."

Even some of the most cautious House Democrats are behind Pelosi's plan to narrow the scope of impeachment proceedings. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., who last year won a long-held GOP seat, said drafting articles of impeachment focused solely on the Ukraine matter would make the most sense, because it has united the party and could be easily articulated to voters.

"It's pretty straightforward," Spanberger said. "These allegations are about something the sitting U.S. president allegedly did. And they are targeted at potentially influencing the 2020 election."

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The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Colby Itkowitz in Washington and Seung-Min Kim in New York contributed to this report.