The president’s team is betting that the cult of his personality and the power of his prolific Twitter feed will be enough to keep senators on his side.
Sitting inside the White House, Mitch McConnell gave Donald Trump some straightforward advice: Stop attacking senators — including Mitt Romney — who likely will soon judge your fate in an impeachment trial.
The one-on-one meeting last week between the Senate majority leader and the president covered several weighty issues including Syria, according to two people familiar with the conversation. But like everything these days when it comes to Trump, impeachment was high on the president’s mind.
And in this case, Trump appears to have listened to the man in the Senate who controls the future of his presidency.
As he juggles legislative priorities like funding the government and passing a new North American trade deal, Trump can’t get his mind off Democrats’ efforts to oust him from the White House. He’s been courting his congressional allies with golf, a World Series game and frequent phone calls — all to develop an echo chamber of support from his allies in Congress.
But the White House is largely leaving the prickly task of managing the Senate Republican Conference to McConnell. Though much of the pair’s contact is concealed even from aides, people familiar with the conversations say they speak all the time — and there’s been an uptick in recent weeks as the impeachment threat grows more serious.
McConnell is helped by the president’s other close allies in the chamber, including GOP Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who traveled with Trump on Friday and golfed with him Saturday. All three help the White House indirectly communicate with other senators, an administration official said.
“The president knows this is dead on arrival in the Senate,” Perdue said this week after watching the World Series alongside Trump and other Republicans.
The president is largely laying off senators with difficult calculations to make in the coming months, declining to lobby the likes of GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Marco Rubio of Florida, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Johnny Isakson of Georgia. And he’s largely laying off Romney after suggesting he should be impeached and calling him a “pompous ‘ass.’”
Instead, White House officials are leaning on Trump’s impromptu meetings at the White House and his direct calls to Republican senators including Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Kennedy of Louisiana. It’s a bet the cult of Trump’s personality and the power of his prolific Twitter feed will be enough to keep members within the fold, even as House Democrats quickly gather evidence as part of the impeachment proceedings.
“I’m not aware of any organized” effort, Rubio said. “I’m sure if we spoke, he’d bring it up. But I don’t need to talk to him to know his feeling about it. He makes it pretty clear on a regular basis.” Rubio said he would weigh the facts of the impeachment case along with the “traumatic” decision of removing a president from office a year before an election.
That’s not to say the president has fully gone hands-off. Last Thursday he hosted 10 Republicans in the Situation Room for a meeting on Middle East policy, including several senators who had called his conversation with the Ukrainian president about Joe Biden inappropriate. After the meeting, they gathered in the ornate Roosevelt Room, where Trump vented about impeachment.
“He said he thought the process was unfair and he hadn’t done anything wrong. And he wanted us to know that,” said an attendee, who said Trump neither put pressure on his mild critics nor received any criticism himself. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
It was part of an effort by the president to give senators “a sense of where his gut’s at and where his head’s at,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who attended the White House meeting last week in the Situation Room.
“He wants to make sure people understand his argument. His case. And he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong. He thinks the call, as he described it, was perfectly appropriate,” Thune added. “And so, I think much of it is just to help our members to better understand a little about where he’s coming from and why he believes that this is a rigged process on behalf of the Democrats.”
Shortly after that meeting, Graham released a resolution attacking the House impeachment inquiry. Eventually, the resolution attracted the support of 50 GOP senators, earning an attaboy from Trump on Twitter and amounting to a show of defense for the president around the process, if not the substance, of impeachment proceedings.
And Trump continues to engage with rank-and-file senators in unusually personal overtures. Kennedy missed a call from Trump on Tuesday afternoon and tried to call him back while the president was at an event. Trump called back at 11:30 p.m., when Kennedy was asleep; they finally connected Wednesday, Kennedy said. The planned topic was another issue, but of course, impeachment came up.
“I don’t know when the president sleeps,” Kennedy said of his manic style. “He’s not depressed or anything. He just really thinks he’s being treated unfairly.”
Much of the White House’s attitude on impeachment has been shaped by the machinations in the House, where Trump enjoys strong support among Republicans. Current and former senior administration officials say if Republicans can remain united in the House ahead of the Democrats’ vote to proceed with impeachment on Thursday, it portends well for the Senate sticking together.
House Republicans’ messaging on the impeachment proceedings, which includes casting it as overly partisan and secretive, will also help guide the way the Senate will proceed, a former Senate leadership aide said. For now, many senators are positioning themselves as impartial by leaning on their future roles as jurors.
“I’m going to be a juror. So I’m not going to talk about what I might have to do,” said Isakson, who is retiring at the end of the year. “You’re not supposed to do that.”
“This is a serious moment in time, and I take it that way,” said Gardner, who said no one from the White House has spoken to him about impeachment strategy. As to how he weighs the evidence he’s seen so far: “I’m not even going to get into that.”
After the conversation between Trump and McConnell, the one major shift in the Senate strategy, so far, is that the White House and president have laid off bullying or calling out senators, like Romney, who has criticized Trump’s overtures to foreign leaders to probe Biden.
Bashing Romney was a “big mistake,” the former Senate aide said, because senators serve six-year terms compared with the two-year terms of House members, and take a much longer view politically.
“You can’t go guns blazing on the Senate,” the former aide said.
In recent remarks, Trump said the Democrats don’t have any “Mitt Romneys” in their midst but declined to go full bore against the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. And Romney said no one from the White House — including Trump and Pence — has reached out to him after Trump’s Twitter assault.
“I didn’t notice the tweets,” Romney insisted.