The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Trump keeps making it tougher for his GOP impeachment defenders

President Trump speaks to reporters before boarding Marine One at the White House on Wednesday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Up against the wall, Donald Trump has always reached into his ready arsenal of aggressive tactics. Confronted with challenges that would make many people search for a way out, he punches back, insults those who speak against him, tosses up falsehoods and distracting stories he knows will get big play in the news media and offers frequently shifting alternative narratives.

Now, facing the likelihood that he will become only the third president ever to be impeached, Trump is deploying his full playbook — even as his statements repeatedly undercut the case Republican defenders in Congress have made on his behalf.

“It makes it more politically difficult for us,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), “but it doesn’t change how we’ll vote on impeachment.”

The president’s unsupported attacks on some of the key witnesses appearing over the past two weeks before the House Intelligence Committee not only surprised many of his Republican allies but also contradicted the narrative that they had settled on to describe why Trump’s actions in the Ukraine controversy do not justify his removal from office.

Even as the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was testifying before the committee and a national TV audience, Trump tweeted that “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” an assertion unmoored from her record as a diplomat serving in seven countries. Democrats called the attack “witness intimidation,” and although most Republicans were publicly quiet, some privately felt that the president they were avidly defending had kneecapped them, according to House Republicans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to be seen as publicly breaking with their colleagues.

“We Republicans were going to say, ‘She’s had an excellent career, but she wasn’t there in the decisive moments, so thank you for testifying, have a nice day,’ ” King recalled. “Then he attacked her, and that set a tone. It makes it more uncomfortable for people.”

Trump went after Yovanovitch again Friday, saying on Fox News that she “hated me so much” and falsely calling her “an Obama person” while complaining that because “she’s a woman, you have to be nice.”

Similarly, White House statements criticizing the judgment of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who coordinates Ukraine policy for the National Security Council, and declaring Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Pence, as a “Never Trumper” left some Republicans looking for ways to get Trump to ease off on the accelerator.

“I think it’s better not to attack our career Foreign Service officers,” said Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) “Those people are just trying to do their job.”

Rooney, who opposes impeachment even as he says Trump clearly threatened the Ukrainian leader “and that’s not a good thing,” said his advice to Trump would be to “let the facts speak, right? That’s what our system of jurisprudence and democracy is all about.”

Before the impeachment hearings began earlier this month, some Democrats expected that Republicans would concede that Trump’s behavior was impolitic, even inappropriate, but would argue that it simply wasn’t consequential enough to justify him being removed from office.

For a while, it appeared that a number of Republicans in Congress were preparing exactly that defense. But it soon became apparent that the strategy had two major flaws: First, there was no Republican consensus that the president had done anything wrong. Some parroted Trump’s line about his conversation having been “perfect,” some seemed to want to blame Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, for steering U.S. policy toward a conspiracy theory and some were genuinely perturbed that the president had twisted foreign policy for political gain.

The second problem faced by the president’s party was the one that has bedeviled Republicans in Congress for three years: Trump’s eagerness to say whatever seems advantageous to him in a given moment.

Several GOP lawmakers said this week that the best thing Trump could do now is focus on his policy agenda and let his allies on the Hill manage the impeachment process. One suggested Trump look to Bill Clinton as a model of how a president can rise above an impeachment by running the country and refusing to get dragged into the muck.

But other House members said that’s just not how Trump operates. The president’s brash manner and penchant for breaking china are already baked into public opinion and his relations with Republicans in Congress, they said, and there’s no concerted effort to get the president to temper his public remarks.

“His comments complicate things,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), “and in some cases, it’s excessive, but you’ll hear members saying it’s just Trump being Trump. He is just different, such a unique figure, and that’s one reason he won. Traditional politicians, including me, have a difficult time figuring out what he means. But the president is probably as popular as any Republican president has been within the party. When we go home, the criticism you get is for not being forceful enough in defending the president. Every Republican here knows the reality.”

Trump has nonetheless made this moment difficult for some of his defenders by contradicting their version of events. For example, some House Republicans conceded that it was at least unseemly for Trump to have asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “to do us a favor” and launch a corruption investigation connected to former vice president Joe Biden.

“It was inappropriate,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) “I do not believe it was impeachable.”

Over the past four months, congressional Republicans have floated no fewer than 30 different defenses of President Trump’s actions on Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

But Trump, who has posted at least 18 tweets declaring his conversation with Zelensky as “perfect,” blasted that defense: “Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable … NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!”

Some Republicans wish Trump would take a quieter approach and let his defenders do their job.

“I think a lot of folks will tell you that, you know, sometimes, do some of us wish that there would be a little more discipline in the messaging?” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) “The answer is yes.” He paused. “That’s diplomatic, right?”

King said that some in Congress have already approached Trump and “talked to him about the tweeting. If he can tone it down a little, that would help. He’s a very sharp businessman. We’re not at war and the economy’s doing very well. He should be winning 55 to 45. As he gets closer to the end of impeachment and the Democratic primaries, he’ll realize he should win if he tones it down.”

But is that a realistic expectation for a president who takes enormous pride in defying expectations about what constitutes acting presidential?

“Hope springs eternal,” King said.

Although impeachment presents a new challenge for Trump, he has spent half a century running up against existential threats to his livelihood and reputation — bankruptcies, business failures, highly publicized divorces, legal battles with competitors.

In many of those cases, those whose business interests were aligned with Trump’s concluded that they needed to remain publicly on Trump’s side, even when they knew he might attack them, undermine them in public or make statements that turned out to be false.

“Truth is whatever he says it is, to obtain whatever he wants to obtain,” Alan Lapidus, a former architect for the Trump Organization, said last year. Lapidus, who designed Trump’s first casino in Atlantic City, said the president’s “modus operandi has not changed a bit.”

Trump has “never understood that you don’t trash the people you put in place,” said Warren Foss, a New York attorney who represented bondholders when Trump’s Atlantic City casinos were in severe financial trouble in 1991. In negotiations between Trump’s lawyers and his creditors, Foss said, Trump would occasionally appear and “unload on us, and we’d say ‘thanks for your input.’ For 30 minutes, we had to put up with his show, and then he got back in his limo and we got back to business.”

Through the years, people on Trump’s side and those aligned against him often decided there was no percentage in openly fighting him. “He believes so strongly in the value of his name,” Foss said. “He believes in himself and that’s constant.”

The nuts and bolts of impeachment were bound to trigger Trump’s defense mechanisms, his loyalists and critics agree. Impeachment is the ultimate expression of Washington’s core business — process. It’s the rare constitutional undertaking that brings all three branches of government together. One party can impeach a president, but removing him from office requires bipartisan consensus.

As it happens, process and consensus are things Trump has been suspicious of throughout his career. He has railed since he first went into business against elites, lawyers, bureaucrats and the methodical detail work of building alliances. He prefers to win by himself, using attacks and brash end-runs around official procedure to get his way and build his brand, according to former Trump Organization executives who worked with him for decades. It’s an approach his fans love and his critics consider appalling.

To remain in office, Trump must rely on his Republican allies in Congress, who have mounted any number of defenses for the president.

Some have said, as Trump does, that he did no wrong. “It’s perfectly appropriate to ask a foreign leader to look into potential corruption,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio). Others said Trump may have asked for an investigation into the company connected to Biden’s son, Hunter, but did not offer anything in exchange. And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has said that Trump could not have demanded a quid pro quo because his policy toward Ukraine was “incoherent.”

Still, others base their defense on the idea that what happened between the president and Ukraine was murky and unknowable — a very different defense from Trump’s statement that he did nothing questionable.

“An impeachment inquiry is supposed to be clear,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) said during Tuesday’s hearing. “It’s supposed to be overwhelming and compelling. If two people on the call disagree honestly about whether or not there was a demand … that is not a clear and compelling basis to undo 63 million votes and remove a president from office.”

But Trump has repeatedly said there was no murk. “I want nothing,” he said Wednesday, repeating words he said were meant to assure Ukraine’s leaders that he was not demanding the investigation that several witnesses have told the committee Trump clearly wanted.

The oft-repeated simple phrase is an example of one of his favorite weapons: the rhetorical knockout punch. When Cher, the singer, tweeted in 2012 that Trump was a “racist cretin,” Trump responded with trash talk about “your massive plastic surgeries that didn’t work.”

“I knocked the [expletive] out of her and she never said a thing about me after that,” Trump told biographer Michael D’Antonio.

For many Republicans in Congress, this is no time to try to change a president who believes that a story oft-told will generally be accepted as true.

“For good or ill, Trump rhetorically is who he is,” Cole said. “There’s a lot of noise, but broadly speaking, he’s done what he said he’d do.”

And that reality is that the president said he believes in nothing as strongly as his father’s admonition to “be a killer” — to win, whatever it takes.

“Never, ever give up,” Trump said in a 2004 commencement address. “Don’t give up. Don’t allow it to happen. If there’s a concrete wall in front of you, go through it, go over it, go around it. But get to the other side of that wall.”