The chief executive who repeatedly has refused to follow presidential precedent this week is undertaking a high-risk break with his predecessors.
Unlike Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton – both demonized by partisan rivals, both faced with impeachment hearings in the U.S. House judiciary committee – Donald Trump has ordered that no administration figures take part in the impeachment proceedings that enter an important new phase on Monday.
The strategy: Don’t dignify this process, which the White House has dismissed as “a reckless abuse of power,” by participating in it. Buttress the argument that the drive to impeach Mr. Trump is simply a partisan effort to remove the President from office because, as Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel, put it last week, “you just don’t like the guy.’’
The danger: By practising a form of unilateral political disarmament and requesting the appearance of a number of witnesses that the Democratic majority never will permit to testify – House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, Hunter Biden and the anonymous whistle-blower – the White House risks relinquishing the sound bites its defenders would provide and allowing the Democrats to dominate the proceedings.
The underlying theme: The permanent Ukrainian controversy meets the permanent American presidential campaign. Mr. Trump said over the weekend that his personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, “has a lot of good information” that he gleaned in a trip to Budapest and Kyiv last week. “He has not told me what he found,” the President said, although he added, “I hear he has found plenty.”
Mr. Giuliani, a former prosecutor, has played a mysterious, controversial role in the Trump circle. Part Svengali, part Rasputin, part Inspector Clouseau, Mr. Giuliani once was a leading Republican presidential candidate but now is a magnet for controversy. His “findings” almost certainly will permit the Trump team to shift some of the attention to the Ukrainian activities of Mr. Biden, the son of former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden, and wounding the presidential campaign of his father along the way.
In that regard, the Giuliani mission ties together the Trump impeachment strategy with the Trump re-election strategy.
Indeed, it is increasingly clear both the Giuliani initiative and the President’s refusal to participate in this week’s House proceedings are part of the principal theme of the Trump presidency in the final year of its four-year term. The Trump strategy to defeat impeachment in the House this month (along with conviction in a likely Senate trial this coming winter) and its strategy to defeat whomever the Democrats select to run in next November’s U.S. election are the same.
Here are the elements:
Insist that the President’s actions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky do not constitute an impeachable crime. Portray Mr. Trump as the victim of a cynical coup attempt to topple a legally elected president. Argue that in battling impeachment on Capitol Hill and re-election defeat in the battleground states, the President is fighting an entrenched political elite more interested in serving its interests. Play a powerful political card in U.S. history by positioning himself as a fearless fighter and defender of what the pioneering American sociologist William Graham Sumner described in 1883 as “the forgotten man.” This is a phrase Franklin Roosevelt appropriated in his 1932 presidential campaign and a notion Mr. Nixon borrowed in his landmark Oval Office “Silent Majority” speech of 1969.
‘’We gave President Trump a fair opportunity to question witnesses and present his own to address the overwhelming evidence before us,’’ House judiciary committee chairman Jerry Nadler said over the weekend. “Having declined this opportunity, he cannot claim that the process is unfair."
Mr. Trump has, and will continue, to claim that the process is unfair – another element of his re-election campaign.
In his 2017 commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Mr. Trump said, “No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
In this regard, Mr. Trump is not blazing a new trail. Consider these presidential remarks:
“Who, I ask, has suffered more for the Union than I have? … The usurpation I have been guilty of has always been standing between the people and the encroachments of power."
The speaker was Andrew Johnson, in remarks to the citizens of Washington on Feb. 22, 1866, marking the birth of George Washington 134 years earlier. Two years later, in 1868, Mr. Johnson was impeached in the House but was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote. The principal argument of his Senate defender William Evarts was that the president’s conduct did not constitute an impeachable crime.
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