By Patsy Widakuswara
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump tweeted. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”
Trump then falsely stated that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy “spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him.”
The tweet, criticized by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff as “witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States,” was one of the latest in a string of attacks Trump has launched against witnesses, the whistleblower and the Democrats involved in the impeachment inquiry.
Trump dismissed accusations of witness intimidation and accused the Democrats of being nontransparent.
“The Republicans have been treated very badly,” Trump said Friday. He said Democrats were not allowing Republicans to ask questions or have witnesses, and he called the hearings “a disgrace.”
The president is demonstrating that he’s not intimidated, said Vanessa Beasley, who teaches presidential rhetoric at Vanderbilt University. “He’s trying to communicate that he’s untouchable, that he will not be stopped,” she said.
The strategy can be effective, especially with members of Trump’s loyal base, who respond well to a combative president, said Shannon O’Brien, who teaches presidential studies at the University of Texas in Austin.
The White House strategy is to “yell louder than the accusations” and “throw up enough smoke and just hope people aren’t paying attention to the details,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien noted that the administration has done a strategic job over the last several years of branding anything that’s critical to the president as fake news and not trustworthy and not valid. “I think they’re trying to push that forward,” she added.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll released before the hearings found that 81% of voters surveyed said there was no or little chance they would change their minds regarding the impeachment inquiry.
The same poll found that 50% of voters supported the impeachment inquiry and 41% opposed it.
There is some evidence that that more people are potentially interested in impeachment or even removal, said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Fortier noted, though, that some of the new support for impeachment comes from “Democrats who are wavering before who’ve moved in that direction.”
‘Low-rent Ukrainian sequel’
Meanwhile, Republicans framed the inquiry as “an impeachment process in search of a crime,” as Representative Devin Nunes, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee and a Trump ally, said in his opening statement on Wednesday.
“It seems you agreed, witting or unwittingly, to participate in a drama,” Nunes said to witnesses William Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, before their testimonies.
“The main performance, the Russia hoax, has ended and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel,” Nunes said.
The framing of the Ukraine inquiry as part two of the Russian election interference investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller is an important narrative for Republicans, said Beasley.
“That’s a frame that basically says to the audience, ‘Hey, there’s nothing really new here, you’ve known the whole time that the Democrats were trying to set him up,’ ” she said. And if you are a Trump supporter who believes in that frame, “that really fills in all the evidence gaps for you,” she added.
Democrats stick to procedure
Nunes called the hearings “spectacles” for Democrats to “advance their operation to topple a duly elected president.” But Democrats are employing their own strategy, aiming for less drama and sticking to congressional procedure.
They have been careful to keep the focus on the president, after receiving blowback in September from Schiff’s parody rendition of the Trump-Zelenskiy call. The goal for Democrats is to lay the groundwork for articles of impeachment and, since this is a political process, to garner support.
“The Democrats are playing in the public opinion realm by following a legalist or proceduralist frame,” said Beasley, adding that at the end of the day, Democrats want to create legitimacy in the process, to be able to say “we did this exactly the way we’re supposed to.”
Democrats have also started using the word “bribery” to describe the president’s alleged wrongdoing, rather than the less known phrase “quid pro quo.”
“The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a, of a fake investigation into the elections,” said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The impeachment process will continue in the months to come, perhaps even until the caucuses and primaries for the 2020 presidential election begin, in early February.