U.S. House Democrats are spending the Thanksgiving recess hammering President Donald Trump for allegedly soliciting foreign interference in U.S. elections as they prepare for another round of impeachment hearings when they return to Capitol Hill.
“The president used his office to pressure a foreign government to interfere in our elections,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted Monday — repeating a message she made to reporters last week when the House adjourned for the one-week recess. The president, she said, has “undermined the national security of the United States” and “the integrity of our elections.”
Congressional Democrats are emphasizing that message — and stressing its national security implications — back at home this week.
In a call with reporters Monday, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut (D), a member of the House committee leading the impeachment inquiry, said the Trump administration’s actions in Ukraine have made the country more vulnerable.
“The president has demonstrated his weaknesses and characteristics to the world,” said Himes, who was joined by national security experts on the call. “This is a grave danger.”
Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, a three-term Democrat, emphasized that point at an impeachment-focused town hall meeting in northern Virginia last week, where he too was joined by national security experts from Washington, D.C.-area think tanks. And other Democrats are highlighting the risk to national security and the U.S. electoral system in their messaging, using the hashtag “DefendOurDemocracy” on social media.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said this is the progressives’ strongest message on impeachment — in part because the public doesn’t understand the details of the president’s alleged misconduct in his July 25th call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“They’re not completely clear why this was an impeachable offense,” Lake said, referring to the president’s alleged attempt to withhold U.S. foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The public, she continued, doesn’t understand why the Ukraine call triggered an impeachment inquiry — even though their ability to understand the exchange was reportedly a key factor in Pelosi’s decision to launch a formal impeachment investigation. The public also wonders why other, seemingly more egregious grievances aren’t the focus of the inquiry, Lake said.
As such, Democrats are emphasizing the broad themes of democracy, safety and security — values the public can easily understand — and tapping experts to serve as messengers on the finer points of the implications of the president’s actions on foreign policy.
Others, however, say pointing to the president’s behavior is a more effective strategy, with the phrase “abuse of power” the most compelling shorthand, according to a Nov. 12 report by Navigator Research, a progressive firm.
Democrats are using that language too. Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, used the phrase in a tweet last week. Rep. Susie Lee, a Nevada Democrat, used it at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas over the weekend.
Many Democrats have also made a linguistic shift — swapping out the wonky Latin phrase “quid pro quo” for the more familiar word “bribery” — a move Lake said has helped the public understand the allegations against the president. The word “bribery” is much stronger because it connotes illegal activity, whereas “quid pro quo” suggests business as usual, she said.
GOP ‘all over the map’
Republicans, meanwhile, have yet to coalesce around a single message on impeachment — a strategy often seen as necessary to communicate effectively in today’s fractured media environment.
“They’re sort of all over the map,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said, noting that he’s heard at least a half dozen messages on impeachment emanating from the party.
Trump, for his part, has consistently made the same point: He did nothing wrong.
“The conversation was a perfect conversation,” he said during a long-winded interview on a Fox news program Friday upon the conclusion of testimony in the House — repeating the same point he made when the official inquiry was launched in September.
Republicans repeated that claim at the outset of the House inquiry, but Lake said the hearings “muted a lot of that.” Instead, she said, they’re trying to shift attention to Biden by repeating the false claim that he shut down an investigation of an energy company affiliated with his son, Hunter, when serving in the Obama administration.
Other House Republicans have offered a different take, saying Trump’s call with Zelensky may not have been “perfect” but did not rise to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor — the standard called for in the U.S. Constitution. In short, the message, expressed last week by moderate GOP Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, is that Trump’s actions were “inappropriate” but not impeachable.
House Republicans have also focused on process rather than substance — using words like “sham,” “scam,” “hoax” and “farce” to describe the Democrats’ approach to the inquiry.
“The entire process has lacked the integrity that the American people deserve from their elected officials,” Republican Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan tweeted Monday — expressing the sentiment of many in the caucus.
Republicans are also attacking Democrats for wasting time on an “impeachment obsession” rather than doing the nation’s business — North Carolina Republican Mark Walker, vice chair of the House Republican Conference, said Monday.
Ayres, meanwhile, wants Republicans to push an entirely different — and more credible — message: that impeachment is a divisive process that will not end in conviction and that removing the president should be the responsibility of the electorate.
More Republicans, particularly in the U.S. Senate, will be making that point as the process moves forward, Ayres predicted.
Countering conservative talking points
Apart from the dropping “quid pro quo,” Democrats have not made major messaging shifts since the beginning of the impeachment hearings, Ayres said.
In general, Democrats refer to impeachment as a solemn responsibility that they say they are compelled to take in order to carry out their oaths of office — a sacrifice they concede will likely undermine the party’s political prospects in 2020.
“This is not a place that we, collectively, in the Democratic majority of the House, wanted to be,” Himes said — countering the perception that Democrats have long sought to impeach Trump. He also addressed another widespread concern — that the process will take a long time. Pelosi, he said, is “hell bent” on wrapping it up quickly “so we can move on to other things.”
Democrats are also attempting to debunk other talking points about impeachment.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that all we do is investigate the White House,” Pennsylvania Democrat Matt Cartwright — co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee — said on the House floor last week. “We have passed 275-plus bipartisan bills for the good of the people.”
Himes conceded that impeachment “distracts all of us” from moving forward on areas of common ground, such as cutting prescription drug costs, updating trade policy with Canada and Mexico, and strengthening infrastructure.
But he and other Democrats countered Republican charges of inaction with charges of their own, referring to “Do-Nothing Donald” and “Missing-in-Action” Mitch McConnell — a reference to the Republican Senate Majority Leader and his “legislative graveyard” in the Senate.
As for GOP complaints about the House management of the inquiry, Beyer remarked: “Our informal understanding is when the facts aren’t on their side, it’s good to complain about the process.”
Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.