U.S. Markets closed

Trump Isn’t Ready for the Impeachment Hearings

Timothy L. O'Brien

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After weeks of damaging testimony from current and former White House advisers and career diplomats, the House of Representatives voted on Thursday to publicly endorse the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

On the same day, Tim Morrison, Trump’s former top adviser for Russian and European affairs on the National Security Council, met with legislators and corroborated earlier accounts that the president strong-armed Ukraine to help undermine a political opponent. On Monday, four more Trump advisers are slated to testify, including John Eisenberg, the president’s deputy counsel for national security affairs. (Eisenberg may be a no-show because he figures prominently and problematically in many episodes of l’affaire Ukraine.) John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, has also been invited to testify. Bolton openly disparaged Trump’s Ukraine sorties, making his testimony potentially devastating.

This has become a runaway train for the White House, careening inevitably toward a House vote to impeach Trump and a Senate trial. Yet through most of it, the White House has simply stood by, relying on staged outrage from Republican proxies and mocking invective from the president’s Twitter feed. Mockery, though, isn’t strategy. And Trump is responding to the most serious threat to his presidency by tightening his decades-long embrace of chaos, mismanagement and serial buffoonery. Neither he nor his advisers have been able to respond to the threats they face in a sophisticated way.

Trump’s legal team has been, at best, oblivious. In early October, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote a vacuous, poorly argued eight-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, advising her that Team Trump would not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. Since then, a slew of White House officials have cooperated anyway. Although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an early display of resisting, his agency was forced to turn over documents related to Trump’s Ukraine machinations.

The White House’s communications team, led by Stephanie Grisham, has played only one weak card in its efforts to sway public perception of impeachment: Trump is good for America, and the inquiry violates his right to due process.

“The president has done nothing wrong, and the Democrats know it,” Grisham said after Thursday’s vote. “Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats’ unhinged obsession with this illegitimate impeachment proceeding does not hurt President Trump; it hurts the American people.”

This message may appeal to Trump’s base, but it hasn’t stopped swing voters from supporting the inquiry.

Grisham, like other Trumpistas, has a casual relationship with the truth. Remember in September when she released a “declassified, unredacted transcript” of Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine’s leader that wasn’t unredacted or even a transcript? 

Overseeing all this confusion is the president’s 38-year-old son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner — someone with negligible legal training who has no experience responding to an impeachment inquiry. (He wasn’t born when Richard Nixon was almost impeached and was 17 when Bill Clinton met his fate.) Kushner is also an unlikely strategist, having failed to fulfill presidential mandates to streamline the federal bureaucracy or bring peace to the Middle East. While managing to push through criminal sentencing reform, he also helped get the president in hot water by recommending he fire former FBI Director James Comey.

Kushner’s advice now, according to Michael Bender and Catherine Lucey of the Wall Street Journal, is to remain calm and not go on the offensive, because “the facts are in the White House’s favor.”

To be sure, it remains unlikely that the Republican-controlled Senate will remove Trump. But there is much that the White House needs to respond to in the here and now, and it makes little sense for Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and his team to rely on Kushner, as the Journal reported, “to provide perspective on reacting to the news cycle and a high-level approach to problem solving.”

Of course, it was Trump who gave these minions their jobs. But Trump, who is 73, has led an oddly charmed life that has left him unconcerned about process, planning or results. His family’s wealth insulated him from the consequences of mistakes he made in his early years — including his flirtation with personal bankruptcy and several corporate bankruptcies — as did the celebrity he enjoyed when he became a reality-TV star later in life.

The presidency has also given him ample legal and political insulation from misdeeds and mistakes, best illustrated by his escape from Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Nevertheless, mismanagement has occasionally caught up with him in the White House — as when he failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act or build a wall along the southern border.

Now facing an impeachment inquiry, Trump is still unable to move beyond nyah-nyahs and finger-pointing. “If anything happened to Trump, President Trump, you would see repercussions in the markets like you haven’t seen before,” he told reporters last week when asked why the White House hasn’t set up a formal impeachment response team. “I don’t have teams, everyone’s talking about teams. I’m the team.”

He doesn’t understand it, but that’s his biggest problem.

To contact the author of this story: Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.