President Donald Trump said he was unimpressed with Wednesday’s impeachment hearing because it was based on “lawyers from television” and “thirdhand” witnesses who were “Never Trump.”
But the president only knew that secondhand, he said, because he was too busy to watch.
Trump and the White House sought to project both disinterest in the public House impeachment hearings that kicked off Wednesday while also seeking to discredit witnesses, attack Democrats and defend Trump as they settled in for a months-long battle.
By sundown, more than three dozen tweets and retweets decrying the day’s events were posted on the feed of a president who said he had not “watched a minute.” They ranged from a White House video called “New Hoax, Same Swamp,” to attacks on Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is running the hearings, to quotes exonerating him from Fox News host Steve Doocy to clips of Republicans defending him.
The White House also sent out dozens of pages of talking points to Republican allies. “The American People Can’t Trust Conspiracy Theorist Eric Swalwell,” read one set sent to Capitol Hill, referring to the California congressman. “Kent Confirms Corruption in Ukraine Is Widespread,” read another, referring to witness George Kent.
Allies tested a range of sometimes dubious theories to discredit the testimony from two State Department officials – one a Trump appointee – who outlined an array of concerns about the administration’s dealings in Ukraine that, in their words, stretched to the president’s behavior.
One top diplomat, William Taylor Jr., tied Trump more closely to the ordeal, describing a phone call between Trump and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland one day after the president’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president, in which Trump sought an update on “investigations.” Afterward, Sondland told the aide that Trump cared more about investigations of former vice president Joe Biden than other issues in Ukraine, Taylor said.
“It became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine,” said Kent, a senior State Department official.
“Never Trumpers!” the president blared on Twitter, hours before either man took the spotlight to thousands of camera clicks.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the president was not watching. She said he was in the Oval Office by 8 a.m. – hours earlier than he usually descends from the White House residence. “He’s working,” Grisham said.
Explaining why the customary Marine who guards the door when Trump is in the Oval was not present, Grisham said Marines were preparing for the arrival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
White House aides were also busy, officials said, working on policy issues. The vice president was on a plane to California. Phone calls were happening about e-cigarettes. The attorney general was working on guns. Aides were huddling with Hill staff about trade.
But TVs were turned on throughout the West Wing, blaring the hearings and a nonstop cascade of negative headlines. A miniature war room was set up, with acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and chief lawyer Pat Cipollone making a visit to see communications and research staffers, a White House official said.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, in a lengthy statement, said the two witnesses only described a policy disagreement with Trump.
“We hate to break it to these unelected, career government bureaucrats who think they know best: the President of the United States sets foreign policy, not them,” Parscale said. He did not explain that Congress approved the aid to Ukraine that Trump withheld, which the president had signed.
The Republican National Committee sent seven emails blasting the proceedings. “Did you hear that?” read one, saying the whole process was based on hearsay. They did not mention that a rough transcript of the call confirmed many of the accusations.
Grisham said the witnesses had never spoken to Trump and dinged Democrats for only attracting secondhand witnesses. She did not mention that the White House has blocked many key aides from being firsthand witnesses.
They were “two bureaucrats with a foreign policy gripe,” Grisham said. But the men, she said, also helped the president by admitting there was no “quid pro quo.”
The entire affair, Grisham said, was “boring,” a word echoed by many in Trump’s orbit.
The president eventually gave the aid to Ukraine, allies said. The Biden family was not investigated, even though Trump wanted it to happen.
“This irregular channel of diplomacy, it’s not as outlandish as it could be,” said GOP staff lawyer Steve Castor, questioning the diplomats.
“It’s not as outlandish as it could be,” Taylor responded with a laugh, seeming amazed by the question. “I agree.”
Trump was particularly pleased with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of the president’s most vociferous defenders on Capitol Hill, who was added to the Intelligence Committee to help Trump.
“Our administration,” Jordan said at one point during a news conference deeming Wednesday a “great day for the president.” He quickly corrected himself: “His administration.”
Privately, in a White House where aides are accustomed to being under siege, most described the day as frenetic but not that unusual. The claims were bad but could have been worse. “Better than expected. Right?” one senior administration official texted, on the condition of anonymity.
Other aides said it was true he had not been glued to the TV – but Trump was likely to watch the proceedings on TiVo later.
Meanwhile, Trump spent much of the day with Erdogan, a strongman who Trump respects and who received the pomp and circumstance of a White House visit weeks after disregarding Trump’s wishes and invading Syria. The visit seemed to play second fiddle, with Erdogan, standing in the White House, declaring he had returned an October letter he had ignored from Trump urging him not to be a “tough guy” or “fool” by invading Syria.
Erdogan was brought into the Oval Office for more than three hours – and received a joint news conference and a meeting with five senators.
“The purpose of this meeting is to have an American civics lesson with our Turkish friends,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
“He was very focused on the meeting,” Graham said in an interview, saying Trump did not mention impeachment with Erdogan and the other senators. “Before we went in, he heard it was boring.”
Minutes after the hearing ended, Trump came into the East Room for the news conference, which started about an hour late.
The July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump said, was “perfect.” He also said he planned to release a transcript of an earlier phone call with Zelensky on Thursday.
“If you read the transcript, this was analyzed by great lawyers. This was analyzed by Gregg Jarrett, it was analyzed by Mark Levin, it was analyzed by everybody,” he said, citing a Fox News personality, and an author and radio host. “They said this statement that I made, the whole call that I made, was a perfect one.”
Trump said he had no recollection of speaking to Sondland as was alleged during the day’s testimony.
“I know nothing about that,” Trump said. “First time I’ve heard it. . . . I don’t recall. Not at all. Not even a little bit.”
He did recall, he said, that Sondland had testified the president told him “no quid pro quo” in a different phone call. He quickly wanted to move on, before stopping again.
“That we even have to waste this gentleman’s time by even thinking about it, by talking about it,” he said, decrying the investigation. “I’d much rather focus on peace in the Middle East,” he said.
The president added of the hearing: “I hear it’s a hoax and it’s being played as a hoax.”