WASHINGTON — The impeachment process has now reached a new phase, and that means Republicans and President Trump are no longer laughing it off. They're playing to win.
President Trump told reporters he was “too busy” to watch the hearings Wednesday, but behind the scenes, he and the White House are working overtime to shore up Republican support — and make sure there are no defections.
On Wednesday, Trump invited five Senate Republicans — who will ultimately be the jurors if the House votes to impeach — to the White House for his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This comes after weeks of Trump hosting dozens of rank and file Republicans, as well as party leaders, for everything from a World Series box to the LSU vs. Alabama football game.
Trump even brought House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Peter King (R-NY.) with him to ringside seats.
“I assumed we’d be sitting up in a luxury box somewhere, but we were ringside — second row,” King gushed to VICE News. “A UFC crowd is not like going to the Metropolitan Opera. But he loved it. He kept saying, ‘These are my people. These are my people.’”
Trump, King & Co. didn’t talk impeachment at the fight, which they stayed at till past midnight, but that all changed when they got on Air Force One to fly back to Washington with the president.
“There was nothing formal about it, just more like talking,” King said. “Like two guys in a bar but he doesn't drink — thank god!”
Besides inviting lawmakers to high-profile sporting events, Trump’s also been holding private “legislative engagement” sessions, like one a couple weeks ago that Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) attended, where impeachment came up.
“I think it's important the president and his team be able to tell their side of the story. Again, it's unfortunate they haven't able to,” Mooney told VICE News after leaving the hearing.
The GOP has also been getting an assist from a White House that’s finally trying to unify its messaging operation by getting its communications team on the same page as the president’s legal team.
“Everybody on Capitol Hill has been taking this seriously, because we probably understand the partisan-politics aspects a little bit better than the White House.”
“Everybody on Capitol Hill has been taking this seriously, because we probably understand the partisan politics aspects a little bit better than the White House,” Mark Meadows (R-NC) told VICE News just off the House floor. “We know that he who controls the narrative controls the public opinion.”
Even if House Republicans were taking it seriously, this week they upped their preparation game. They conducted a mock hearing ahead of Wednesday’s first public hearing, and party leaders gathered the entire conference together at the start of the week to get their troops all on the same page, in part by passing out 18 pages of talking points.
“We’re unified because the facts are on our side,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told VICE News after the hearing.
Mooney was one of the Republicans who stormed the secure location (the SCIF) where Democrats held the classified briefings last month. He says the way Democrats began the process with the closed-door hearings soured many Republicans to the investigation, and the president has been helping them spread that message on social media to drum up support from their conservative base.
“I've been doing video clips, and getting a lot of hits on them, to my surprise.”
“I've been doing video clips, and getting a lot of hits on them, to my surprise,” Mooney said.
The GOP messaging has evolved in recent months. First it was there was no quid pro quo. Then it was trying to make a scandal out of the closed-door portion of the investigation. But after White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters there was a quid pro quo and it was fine and everyone should "get over it" – only to be forced to walk it back later – many rank and file Republicans started to push that line of argument.
“Even if there was a quid pro quo, which would not have been appropriate, it would not be an impeachable offense,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) told VICE News. “Bribery, treason, or a high crime and misdemeanor. So things that are comparable to bribery, increasing bribery, treason, which are mentioned, and then things like that.”
Cover: President Donald Trump arrives to the UFC 244 event at Madison Square Garden on November 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)