How Trump Plans To Fight Impeachment Push President Trump's White House is struggling with how to respond to the ever-growing Ukraine scandal as the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry is set to take depositions from key witnesses this week. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political correspondent Scott Detrow, and justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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How Trump Plans To Fight Impeachment Push

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How Trump Plans To Fight Impeachment Push

How Trump Plans To Fight Impeachment Push

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BARTON GIRDWOOD, BYLINE: I'm Barton.

LEXIE SCHAPITL, BYLINE: I'm Lexie.

CHLOEE WEINER, BYLINE: I'm Chloe (ph).

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: I'm Eric (ph).

GIRDWOOD: And we are the NPR POLITICS PODCAST production team.

WEINER: We're here in studio getting ready to tape today's show.

MCDANIEL: Which will be our official relaunch as a daily podcast.

SCHAPITL: This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

2:38 p.m. on Monday, September 30.

GIRDWOOD: Things may have changed by the time you hear it.

BARTON, CHLOE, ERIC AND LEXIE: OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I feel like this was an inside operation here. I don't know if that was legitimately selected...

KEITH: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...From all of the timestamps that were offered.

KEITH: But it was so sweet, and I am so excited. That is the news. We are now officially a weekday podcast.

DETROW: This is the first day of the rest of our lives. For the rest of our lives means a lot of news happening, so it makes sense to just pod every day.

KEITH: Yeah.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Lots of podding.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

KEITH: And let's start with the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she wants this inquiry to move fast. And even though Congress is out on recess this week and next week, they are doing things, right Ryan?

LUCAS: That's right. They actually have three interviews scheduled for this week. One is with the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. That's Marie Yovanovitch. She was recalled by the Trump administration in May. Then there's also the former U.S. special representative to Ukraine, Kurt Volker. Those two, of course, lawmakers want to talk to because of the knowledge that they have about Ukraine and U.S. policy towards Ukraine, particularly during the time period that there are a lot of questions about. And then on Friday, they're also going to talk to the intelligence community inspector general. That's Michael Atkinson. They have spoken with him before. He's the one who handled the whistleblower complaint initially.

KEITH: And we should say that these interviews are going to happen behind closed doors. These are not going to be big, blockbuster public hearings. These are transcribed interviews.

LUCAS: That's right, which is where you often get kind of the more substantive work done would be behind closed doors, where people are not preening for the cameras but you actually get into the nitty gritty of things.

KEITH: And just as a reminder, Scott. This is all brought about by this phone call - this July 25 phone call that President Trump had with the president of Ukraine, President Zelenskiy, where he, on a number of occasions, suggested that Zelenskiy talk to Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, about looking into, among other things, Joe Biden. So, Scott, what do you think that they are hoping to get out of these various interviews?

DETROW: Everybody read the transcript - not a full transcript but the extended notes of the call last week, where Trump repeatedly brings up the fact that he wants Zelenskiy to get in touch with Rudy Giuliani, with Attorney General William Barr - I would like you to do us a favor, though, being the key line. This call happened in a broader context that Democrats have a lot of questions about. And that's the fact that a multimillion-dollar aid package was approved for Ukraine, was on its way to Ukraine and then the White House, at one point, held up the aid package. They want to know why that is. What was the reasoning behind that, which publicly last week, President Trump gave varying answers on because that could be a key thing here.

KEITH: Can we dig in on one name that you mentioned earlier? And that is Kurt Volker.

LUCAS: Yes. So Kurt Volker was the U.S. special representative to Ukraine. He was doing that on a volunteer basis. But Volker is someone of interest because he ended up being, essentially, the middleman who helped arrange the meeting between an adviser to Ukraine's president and President Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. And what Giuliani has told me is that Volker helped arrange that meeting. He put the two in touch. And it's my understanding that the Ukrainians wanted to be connected with Giuliani. And part of the reason to put those two in touch is because there are a lot of negative views of Ukraine out there, and one of the individuals who is pushing that viewpoint the most has been Rudy Giuliani. And so if Giuliani could, perhaps, meet with the Ukrainians himself, they might be able to convince him that they have good intentions, that they want to fight corruption. And if Rudy has a different view on that, perhaps the president might have a different view on that as well.

KEITH: And we are going to get a test of whether and how much the Trump administration is going to cooperate with this investigation and whether it's different than before because there's a Friday deadline for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to turn over a bunch of documents that House committees have been asking for for a while.

DETROW: So, Tam, we've talked a lot about how impeachment is also a political storyline, right? The public opinion on this matters. How people involved talked about this matters a great deal - big question about how the White House is going to move forward on this. Over the weekend, the president tweeted 80 - eight, zero - 80 times about this, sometimes very angrily. And some of the things he said were pretty extreme.

KEITH: That's right. There's one series of tweets. I'm going to read part of it for you because I like reading tweets in the podcast. He says, like every American, I deserve to meet my accuser, especially when this accuser, the so-called whistleblower, represented a perfect conversation with a foreign leader in a totally inaccurate and fraudulent way. Then he also says that he wants Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, to be, quote, "questioned at the highest level for fraud and treason." He ends this series of tweets, big consequences, exclamation point.

DETROW: And there was a lot of pushback from - including one Republican member of Congress about using phrases like treason and also talking about the potential of civil war if he were impeached. He was quoting other people saying that.

KEITH: Yes, the president was quoting other people saying if he's impeached, it could be civil war. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican congressman, tweeted, why is the president of the United States amplifying this? That's not OK. That was a paraphrase.

LUCAS: If we just take a step back for a second and think about the fact that the president of the United States, even if he's quoting somebody else, is raising the specter of possible civil war, that is - that's stunning. It is worth stopping and saying that.

DETROW: All right. But beyond talking points, Tam, you did some reporting over the weekend on how the White House is organizing to deal with this. What did you learn?

KEITH: They are not really organizing to deal with this is what I learned.

DETROW: All right.

KEITH: Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to the president, insists that there is no war room. There will be no war room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Why would he do that? Who started the war here? He's the most battle-tested person I've ever met. Why do we need an impeachment war room when the other people have the burden of showing why they're impeaching the president?

KEITH: In some ways, it seems like the White House was very much caught off guard by this. And the president himself really got to that in a press conference last week, where he said, I thought this was over. The reality is that this is likely going to be managed by the campaign, that the war room is the president's reelection campaign.

DETROW: And when you're talking about a war room, you're talking about something that the Clinton White House did of just several staffers devoted to dealing with this and nothing else. And they're the ones coming up with the strategy, the messaging, things like that so that the rest of the White House can do their day jobs.

KEITH: Like, including the president of the United States. But it seems pretty clear that President Trump, if 80 tweets are any indication, is pretty darn focused on this. All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, Vice President Biden battles against the president's talking points about corruption.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: And we're back. And one big question spinning out of this infamous phone call now between President Trump and President Zelenskiy is whether or not Vice President Joe Biden and his campaign are going to be affected by all of this focus on a controversy over the president pressuring another president to investigate one of his political rivals, who is Joe Biden.

DETROW: Yeah. And we should say from the onset, before we get into this, that the central Trump claim against Biden that he pressured Ukraine to fire this prosecutor who was investigating his son, that is not true. It has not been substantiated by any reporting on this. When I say that on the radio, lots of people will then tweet at me a video of Joe Biden bragging about getting this prosecutor fired.

That did happen. That is something Biden did, but he did that in line with U.S. foreign policy. He did that in line with a lot of our European allies with big groups like the International Monetary Fund. The international community thought that this key prosecutor was a corrupt figure. They wanted to get him out as Ukraine went through a leadership transition. There is no evidence whatsoever that Hunter Biden was under investigation by this prosecutor.

KEITH: So, Scott, you have talked to Biden's people. You went out to Las Vegas late last week and reported on how Biden was dealing with this. How are they dealing with this? Because this could go either way.

DETROW: They're dealing with this very carefully, very very, very carefully. Over the course of last week, Biden did not make many public appearances. He gave a very brief statement at the beginning of this week when this all came to a head. And then he didn't do a campaign event until the end of the week out in Las Vegas, where I was.

It seems like the Biden campaign is taking this approach - when it comes to Biden himself, they are not spending much time at all defending themselves against these allegations. They're not saying this is wrong for this reason, this reason and this reason. Biden is giving a very brief, quick defense that boils down to what he said on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel" last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE")

JOE BIDEN: There's not one single solitary legitimate journalist in the world that has given any credibility to this. They've debunked all of what he's had to say for the past - since Giuliani started this a while ago.

DETROW: And that is accurate. And then what Biden is doing is pivoting to the big themes that he's been running on his entire campaign that you could argue this really falls into - that President Trump is a unique threat to the presidency and to, as Biden puts it, the soul of America, and that Biden is running to restore a sense of normalcy to all of that.

LUCAS: Do they - does Team Biden think that there's a world in which this helps him or is this seen as purely something that can drag him down?

DETROW: The interesting thing is - and I don't really think I expected this when I started to make calls. I talked to a ton of Democrats last week in rival campaigns, people who aren't working for any campaigns, talking to the Biden folks. There is a school of thought that this all really does help Joe Biden. And it's because of this - that Democratic voters, as we have repeatedly talked about on this podcast, are obsessed with the idea of electability.

They want to find the person who is the strongest candidate against Donald Trump. They just want to beat Donald Trump. That is a big reason why Joe Biden has led in the polls for much of this race and a big argument that Biden himself makes. So the thinking is Donald Trump talking about Joe Biden over and over and over again and Donald Trump trying to dig up dirt on Joe Biden really illustrates to voters Trump thinks Biden is the biggest threat.

So that's the positive argument, which, again, I'll say there were people in other campaigns who thought that that could be the case. The negative is, of course, Trump is going to continue making this claim. It was - what, Tam? - a $10 million ad buy with this claim at the central part of it.

KEITH: Yeah. The Republican Party, combined with the Trump campaign, is running an ad about impeachment - $10 million on cable. And a big part of it is basically just a hit on Biden.

DETROW: And, that aside, that unsubstantiated attack aside, there are a lot of legitimate questions about the jobs that Hunter Biden - Joe Biden's son - took when Biden was in office. The fact is Hunter Biden was on the board of this Ukrainian gas company, making $50,000 a month. What was the expertise he brought to that? A lot of it had to do with the fact that his last name was Biden.

KEITH: And there is a long and storied history in Washington of people monetizing their family name.

DETROW: Yeah. And I would say that I talked to people who worked for Hillary Clinton who said, you know, given how much a big part of the attacks on Clinton were about the Clinton family making a lot of money off of the fact that they were in public service in one way or another, they think that the downside of this could be a whole bunch of stories about the Biden family, various ways they made money. And that could remind a lot of voters, oh, are we doing this again? I didn't like it when we did it with the Clintons. I don't want to do it now.

KEITH: I will say that in Trump world, they feel mighty good. I mean, they don't feel good about the call, but they feel good about the fact that Joe Biden keeps coming up as they talk about the call.

All right. That is a wrap for today. We will be back tomorrow. But between now and then, we need your help. As we mentioned, we are going daily, five days a week, which means we're going to need a lot more timestamps at the top of the show. So as we have for so long, we turn to you, our loyal listeners, to send us your timestamp. We want firsts. We want heartwarming life moments.

LUCAS: Civil War battlefields.

KEITH: State capitals.

DETROW: I would also say I really like the timestamps that are just everyday moments of life, not necessarily the greatest moment of your life or a fabulous vacation - just you being you.

KEITH: Do something mundane. We like mundane.

LUCAS: Something musical.

KEITH: We look forward to your timestamps. Send them in a voice memo to nprpolitics@npr.org. All right. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.

LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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