WASHINGTON — When it comes to President Trump's impeachment inquiry, some leading Republicans appear to be moving out of the phase of denial and right into acceptance.
Well, kind of.
After weeks of denying there was any quid pro quo with Ukraine and howling about process, a growing number of Republicans are taking a softer, savvier approach to Trump's questionable conduct in the White House: Yes, it’s bad, but impeachable?
That message could help Republicans raise the bar for impeachment in voters’ minds — and allow lawmakers to act like they’re treating his actions seriously without actually standing up to him.
“I think some of the things that were done were not wise. I think some of the statements may lack judgment. That's different than being illegal,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a retired Air Force general who represents a swing district in Omaha.
Trump stands accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine to pressure them to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 election as well as probe his top 2020 rival (at the time), former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Hunter served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Congressional Republicans’ strategy up until now has been to attack Democrats’ closed-door impeachment process while declining to engage with the substance of what he did. They’ve argued there was nothing to see in the transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s new president but declined to engage with a mounting pile of testimony from career diplomats and White House officials that his administration was after a quid pro quo.
Now, as Democrats prepare to release such testimony to the public and begin the public phase, Republicans will be forced to shift from griping about process to defending the actual facts of the case. And considering how bad it’s already gone for Trump, they’ll be looking to find a new way to get the president (and themselves) off the hook.
“I personally don’t think the law’s been broken. I don't think it was wise judgment to be bringing up Joe Biden in that conversation,” said Bacon. But he said the polling he’s seen shows that there’s a number of voters in the middle, like him, who think “I don't like what he said, but it's not impeachable.”
Tim Morrison, a member of Trump’s own National Security Council, attempted to square that circle on Thursday. Even as he confirmed a bevy of damaging details about Trump, including the quid pro quo with Ukraine Democrats are investigating the president over, he said he was “not concerned that anything illegal was discussed” on Trump’s infamous call.
That was the claim Republicans decided to push forward. And it may have paid off. Notably, a number of nonpartisan publications led their stories with Morrison’s characterization of the call rather than focus on the fact that he’d confirmed others’ damning testimony.
“Some journalists are asking, 'Well, does this undermine or promote national security?' But that's not necessarily the question,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).
Sullivan is a former assistant secretary of state and is up for reelection next year. He declined to talk about the facts of the case because he said too much was based on “selective leaks” from the private depositions (another GOP argument that will go away once the full deposition transcripts are released). But he compared any current issues he had with Trump’s actions to his disagreements with Trump on Syria and his multiple criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy.
“You're looking at what is the most severe constitutional remedy that we have in our entire system — and that is a much bigger issue than do you disagree or agree with what the president of the United States or his team have done,” Sullivan said. “It's a really important question… and it’s something that I raise when I'm back home.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) took a similar tack. He dodged when pressed by VICE News about whether he was concerned at all with anything he’d seen in the transcript or reports on the subsequent testimony.
“The question on the table is impeachment. And that's the question we should get an answer to,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went the same route during last week's Senate hearing to confirm Trump’s new ambassador to Russia, arguing that Trump’s removal of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in early summer as he allegedly geared up to push Ukraine for a quid pro quo was unsavory but not illegal.
“It’s wrong, it’s bad for morale, it would encourage adversaries to do the same,” he said. “But there is nothing illegal about an ambassador being removed from their post.”
There’s historical precedent to this strategy. Many Democrats took the same approach with President Clinton, arguing that while his affair with Monica Lewinsky and his decision to lie about it under oath were immoral, they didn’t rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.
That allowed scores of Democrats to criticize the president for his misbehavior while arguing that what he did wasn’t impeachable.
Clinton, however, made it a lot easier on his party by publicly admitting he was at fault and apologizing for his actions. Trump isn’t making it any easier for Republicans to find that nuance.
The president has insisted on running his own messaging battle without any official organization — “He is the war room,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham declared on Fox News last Friday. And he continues to demand total fealty from Republicans, even as he insists that the call was “perfect.”
Over the weekend, he made clear that this new GOP strategy wouldn’t be acceptable:
“[House Democrats] welcomed the fact that [Clinton] admitted he’d done something wrong,” said John Podesta, the White House chief of staff during the Clinton impeachment. “We at least had the weight of historic and legal opinion on our side — while no one was supporting what the president had done, it wasn’t an impeachable offense.”
Clinton’s job approval ratings were also always above water during the impeachment, while Trump’s have been upside-down throughout his presidency (though they’re notably better in key swing states).
Soon Republicans may learn from their opponents across the aisle, and retreat to safer ground.
“That’s likely where they will render their judgment,” said Podesta.
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the media on the South Lawn upon his return to the White House by Marine One, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 3, 2019, after returning from a trip to New York. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)