Officially, the Trump White House is still deciding whether or not to send a lawyer to the House judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings next week.
Unofficially, party insiders and observers say the decision has been all but made to continue stonewalling. Instead, they will follow the playbook of recent House Intelligence Committee hearings, when the White House refused to cooperate and instead used Trump loyalists on the committee to mount its defense.
It is a strategy designed to maintain a status quo that would ensure a vote in the Senate against removing the president. And the strategy has so far kept the American public from shifting decisively in favor of impeachment.
“There is a lot still to be decided on how we go about this,” said a senior House Republican source. “But it is the Democrats who need to make the case, we just have to hold the line.”
Sending White House lawyers could come with a political price, undermining the Republican defense that the proceedings are rigged against them, said insiders.
Instead, outspoken Trump supporters on the committee — GOP Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Doug Collins of Georgia, and John Ratcliffe of Texas — will take on the role of defenders. That will reprise the House Intelligence Committee approach, when Jordan and the panel’s top Republican member, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, questioned the integrity of witnesses and raised conspiracy theories about Ukraine.
The first House Judiciary hearing, on Dec. 4, will feature constitutional arguments as members debate whether to draft impeachment articles.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler has written to the White House inviting Trump and his lawyers to attend.
“At base, the president has a choice to make,” said the New York Democrat. “He can take this opportunity to be represented in the impeachment hearings, or he can stop complaining about the process.”
The White House said it is reviewing the invitation.
“What is obvious to every American is that this letter comes at the end of an illegitimate sham partisan process,” said Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s press secretary.
“The president has done nothing wrong, and the Democrats know it.”
Ignoring the invitation has political implications for Trump, who has complained that the process is rigged.
Sam Nunberg, a former aide to Trump from the president’s days as a businessman, said refusing the invitation risks handing talking points to the president’s liberal critics.
“Impeachment is passing the House, so why would you pass up the chance to muddy it up?” Nunberg told the Washington Examiner.
However, a former administration official said a cost-benefit analysis suggested the president had more to lose than to gain.
“Things are going our way,” he said. “The risk is that it becomes a lot more difficult to say this process is a sham if you are cooperating.”
Polls indicate about half of voters favor impeachment, although opinion has shifted little after two weeks of public hearings. At the same time, Senate Republicans say they see no sign that support is wavering among the people who will ultimately decide the president’s fate.
Trump and his allies insist there was nothing wrong with the July 25 phone call between the president and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A White House summary revealed Trump asked his counterpart to do him a “favor” and talked about accusations then-Vice President Joe Biden halted an investigation that might have affected his son, Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Days of public testimony suggest White House officials believed Trump was at the head of an effort to pressure Zelensky to help him dig up dirt on a likely 2020 opponent.
However, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee pushed back by bringing up questions about Ukrainian corruption. And the White House issued a flood of talking points that none of the witnesses had direct evidence of Trump’s involvement.
The president himself recently laid out the argument during a Fox & Friends phone interview.
“I think it is very hard for them to impeach you when they have absolutely nothing,” he said on Friday. “I don’t expect it.”
His defenders on Capitol Hill have launched their own muddy-the-water operation.
This week, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking for documents that would help investigate allegations Biden sought the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor to end an investigation into his son.
“I love Joe Biden as a person, but we are not going to give a pass to what is obviously a conflict of interest,” Graham wrote on Twitter. “I believe Hunter Biden’s association on the Burisma board doesn’t pass the smell test.”
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