As impeachment unfolds, Trump offers counterprogramming

Why We Wrote This

Unlike former President Bill Clinton, who chose not to say much about impeachment, Mr. Trump seems to be embracing a split-screen approach, trying to capture attention on his own terms.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Donald Trump addresses U.S. mayors in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 24, 2020.

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From the start of the impeachment trial, President Donald Trump has worked hard to stay in the public eye: grabbing global attention while in Europe; hopscotching around the country for televised campaign rallies; tweeting up a storm, including a personal record for tweets in one day (142); hosting prominent foreign leaders at the White House.

Some items on the president’s busy schedule were long in the works, but they still feed into the president’s larger purpose at a time of maximum stress. He pays close attention to TV ratings, which have been low for the Senate trial. Like a TV producer, he aims to create a competing narrative designed to attract public attention, both allies and detractors say. Even now – after the leaking of a book manuscript by a former top aide that adds fuel to the charges at the heart of the impeachment trial – President Trump appears unfazed. 

“He’s trying to counterprogram,” says a source close to the White House who participates in multiple calls a day with Trump aides focused on public messaging during impeachment. 

By all indications, President Donald Trump is drawn to drama. 

The former reality TV star loves to perform, loves being the center of attention, loves to shift the media discourse with a well-timed tweet. Even now – after the leaking of a book manuscript by a former top aide that adds fuel to the charges at the heart of the impeachment trial – President Trump appears unfazed. 

And unlike former President Bill Clinton, who “compartmentalized” his way through impeachment, Mr. Trump seems to be fully embracing the trial as part of the “Trump show” and using his time in the split screen to capture attention and keep his supporters firmly on board. In fact, by staying away from the Capitol – despite saying he’d love to attend, after a senator offered him a ticket – he may be garnering more attention than if he had to sit there in silence. 

From the start of the trial, Mr. Trump has worked hard to stay in the public eye: grabbing global attention while in Europe; hopscotching around the country for televised campaign rallies; tweeting up a storm, including a personal record for tweets in one day (142); hosting prominent foreign leaders at the White House.

Some items on the president’s busy schedule were long in the works, but they still feed into Mr. Trump’s larger purpose at a time of maximum stress. He pays close attention to TV ratings, which have been low for the impeachment trial, and he complained when his defense lawyers had to start their argument on Saturday morning, calling that time slot “Death Valley." Like a TV producer, he aims to create a competing narrative designed to attract public attention, both allies and detractors of Mr. Trump say.  

“He’s trying to counterprogram,” says a source close to the White House who participates in multiple calls a day with Trump aides focused on public messaging during the impeachment trial. 

For President Clinton, only the second U.S. president in history to be impeached, the coping mechanism was to keep any scandals he was dealing with in a separate place, mentally. 

“Clinton was always a compartmentalizer,” says veteran Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “He had an amazing talent for putting personal things into one box and public things and governing into another box.”

Mr. Trump, in contrast, “takes everything personally,” says Mr. Fenn. “He can’t operate outside the realm of, ‘It’s all about me.’”

For Trump aides, as with all presidential staff, pleasing the boss is paramount. And so staff who aren’t directly tasked with addressing impeachment have to compartmentalize to some degree, even as the boss is consumed by what he sees as a “witch hunt” – a term that many a Democrat applied to President Clinton’s 1998 impeachment. 

In a 2006 interview with scholars at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, former Clinton personal secretary Betty Currie agreed that during their impeachment whirlwind, most of the staff kept their noses to the grindstone and focused on work that had nothing to do with investigations and, eventually, impeachment. 

“We had to run the country,” Ms. Currie said

Mr. Clinton also had an impeachment “war room,” led by lawyer Lanny Davis, who pursued a “very defined” strategy. One rule forbade the president from speaking publicly about the impeachment proceedings. 

That, of course, is anathema to Mr. Trump’s style. For starters, no one tells him what to do. Or if someone does, there’s no guarantee he’ll listen. 

By having a press secretary who has never conducted a press briefing, Mr. Trump is effectively serving as his own spokesman. Thus, he lives or dies politically by his own guile and gut. The approach may be working: His average job approval rating registered Monday at its highest point – 45.5% – since the earliest days of his presidency.  

On Monday, as Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial resumed, the president’s expected story line – easy acquittal at week’s end, followed by a victory lap – may already have been dashed. The New York Times scoop posted Sunday evening about former national security adviser John Bolton’s forthcoming book has increased the chances that the Senate will vote to subpoena witnesses. If a majority of senators make that call, the trial will extend beyond this week.

In his manuscript, Mr. Bolton – long at the top of Democrats’ wishlist for impeachment trial testimony – wrote that Mr. Trump had ordered a freeze on security aid to Ukraine until the country had agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential rival, and others, according to the Times story. This represents the first time a firsthand witness has made such an assertion. 

But at the White House Monday, the programming centered on a completely different topic: Middle East peace. Mr. Trump welcomed ally Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, separately, Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz, for meetings on the Trump administration’s plan for the region. 

The meetings seemed to serve the domestic political goals of all concerned, but not much more. The Palestinians, who were not invited, rejected the U.S. plan sight unseen. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will hold a joint press conference. 

This week’s focus on Israel recalls comments by Elaine Kamarck, a former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore, in her Miller Center interview from 2008. She spoke of how both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush turned to Middle East peace as they struggled with domestic political challenges.

“All these presidents think, ‘Oh, well, I [expletive]-ed up my presidency, so I’ll try to make peace in the Middle East,’” Ms. Kamarck said. “As if this is going to save these guys.”

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