Why you should care
Because America’s dwindling swing voters don’t like the president’s tweets.
Not that he’d take the advice, but Bill Clinton offered a lesson for President Donald Trump last week. Appearing on CNN, Clinton talked about how he carried on working with the Republican Congress in 1998 and 1999 even as it impeached him for lying under oath about his sexual relationship with a White House intern.
“Look, you got hired to do a job,” the former president said. “Every day is an opportunity to make something good happen. I would say, ‘I’ve got lawyers and staff people handling this impeachment inquiry. And they should just have at it. Meanwhile, I’m going to work for the American people.’”
The notion that Clinton went ahead with his work unbothered by impeachment is a fallacy: He raged and agonized plenty in private. But he did carry on with the job. A drama-soaked Friday morning showed just how much Trump is consumed by the impeachment conflagration, and how that creates perils beyond whatever he did with Ukraine policy.
Trump had said he was too busy to watch the first day of public impeachment testimony on Capitol Hill, when the bow-tied George Kent and gravelly-voiced Bill Taylor laid out how the U.S. government sought to extract public announcements that Ukraine would undertake investigations politically helpful to Trump in exchange for military aid and a White House meeting.
Then came Friday and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. A three-decade public servant yanked from her post after a smear campaign by Rudy Giuliani and others, Yovanovitch proved an incredibly sympathetic witness — though not materially connected to this past summer’s delay of military aid that is the crux of impeachment. The Republicans’ line of questioning stressed the latter point. And Trump, following along on TV, would have been well-served to stick to the “nothing to see here” defense.
Instead, as Yovanovitch was detailing the attacks against her — including how the State Department refused to back her up for fear of an angry Trump tweet — the president engaged in some real-time commentary, tweeting: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”
That prompted House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff to break in and read the tweet aloud to a stricken, yet composed, Yovanovitch. “It’s very intimidating,” she said. And a breakthrough moment was born.
Among the fast-dwindling number of America’s swing voters, there are many who are fed up with Trump’s behavior — particularly the tweets. Democrats launched into impeachment knowing full well Senate Republicans will never boot Trump from office. So the hearings are designed for those voters, with the goal of both exposing and provoking fresh unseemly behavior from the president.
Democrats have had some help: A jury on Friday convicted longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone of lying to Congress about his contact with WikiLeaks regarding stolen Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign — a conviction that also drew a critical Trump tweet. Add another Friday morning story about the Department of Justice investigating Giuliani, and these are distracting times for the commander in chief.
What would a Clinton-style impeachment defense look like from Trump? On Friday afternoon, he held a White House event touting a laudable new initiative: better health care price transparency by requiring hospitals and insurers to reveal more of their negotiated rates.
For about a half-hour, we got a glimpse of an effective tack. Trump talked about the booming stock market, claimed the new executive order was “bigger than health care,” threw some elbows at Obamacare and made an oblique reference to House Democrats “wasting a lot of time” on impeachment. He derided Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “nervous Nancy” for not putting up a vote on a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada. Pelosi had just said the day before that such a vote is “imminent” amid pressure from moderate members to show they’re accomplishing something more than impeachment.
It all evaporated when Trump started taking questions about the accused witness intimidation of Yovanovitch, which he characterized as free speech. “In the history of our country, there’s never been a disgrace like what’s going on right now,” he said, going on to attack the press as a gang of dishonest Democrats.
Witnesses in the televised impeachment hearings have not yet directly implicated Trump. That makes Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s appearance this Wednesday critical — Sondland actually discussed Ukraine with Trump — given his direct contact with the president on issues at the heart of the impeachment case.
Early returns suggest this extended series of hearings is not drawing eyeballs in the same way as other landmark moments of the Trump era, like Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The first day of testimony drew 13.8 million live TV viewers across all the networks — less than a typical regular-season NFL game — though that doesn’t account for those who streamed the hearings online. (Blasey Ford drew 20 million TV viewers last fall.)
The vast majority of news consumers, therefore, will be learning about these hearings through their respective filter bubbles rather than consuming it straight. The most ardent @realDonaldTrump followers are no doubt looking forward to what he cooks up for Sondland, while White House staff would be wise to find some counterprogramming.