WASHINGTON — The Republican defense of President Donald Trump is all over the place — a situation that is both less than ideal, but perhaps good enough for the White House.
The only two points of agreement for GOP lawmakers right now are that they aren't ready to remove Trump from office and they think Democrats don't play fair.
Otherwise, they've been unable to formulate a clear, cohesive message in support of a commander in chief facing serious consequences over the wide-ranging campaign he ran to pressure Ukraine into investigating 2020 rival Joe Biden.
Instead, and often in lieu of delving into the facts of the case, they've lined up behind one of a series of arguments for Trump staying in place that include:
- Trump's personal favorite — that he did "nothing wrong;"
- But if he did, whatever he may have done wrong does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense;
- Maybe Trump withheld U.S. funds from Ukraine while he sought an investigation into the Biden family — but there's no proof that the release of funds was conditioned on a promise for the probe to begin (though testimony and reporting show the condition was clear);
- Still, even if there was a quid pro quo, there was no corrupt intent on the part of the president (Democrats say proof of bribery is not necessary for impeachment);
- And no matter what President Trump may or may not have done, the investigative process Democrats have pursued has been so unfair to him that it has invalidated impeachment.
But splintered as it has been, that GOP defense has been working so far in one concrete respect: not a single Republican lawmaker has said publicly that he or she will vote to impeach Trump or remove him from office, highlighting just how difficult the task will be for Democrats as they pursue the most serious sanction a president can face.
When the House voted last month on rules of procedure for the remainder of its impeachment inquiry — a step the GOP had clamored for — Republicans were completely unified in voting against the resolution.
In large part, Trump benefits from a basic asymmetry in the messaging fight: his audience is partisan Republican lawmakers and Democrats are trying to sway independents — and perhaps some Republicans — in the electorate. If they're very convincing, or Trump implodes politically, perhaps they can move some GOP lawmakers by changing voters' minds.
Michael Steel, a former spokesman for then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Trump's backers would prefer to have "a coherent, factual, central, agreed-upon pushback" to fight impeachment — but don't need it to protect the president.
"That seems difficult if not impossible given the facts, and ultimately it probably won't matter — because assuming the Senate does not vote to remove the president from office, he will immediately declare total exoneration in all caps" and repeat that until Election Day 2020, Steel said. "What every Republican is doing today is essentially a holding action to get them to that point."
While Trump's main audience is those Republican lawmakers — first in the House and then in the Senate, which could be influenced by the presence, or absence, of defections from the party line —Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is aiming her message at a much different group, according to Paul Begala, who advised President Bill Clinton when he was impeached.
Pelosi must try to convince independents in the electorate that Trump's conduct merits removal from office, he said — adding that it's unlikely that even a dramatic change in public opinion will sway enough lawmakers to vote Trump out.
"I don't think there's any hope of 20 Senate Republicans judging this on the facts," Begala said. "But there is real hope for informing the American people and getting justice at the ballot box."
He added that there are two pieces to the public messaging battle — the second being what the parties are doing for the people outside of the scandal — and that his party could do more to show that it hasn't prioritized investigating over legislating.
"Democrats should do a better job of saying we've passed 200 bills" and pointing out that the Republican-led Senate has not taken action on House measures, he said. "The Republicans aren't delivering on that. ... Meanwhile, Trump doesn't even pretend to have an agenda."
If Trump isn't knocked out of office by impeachment, the two parties will move on to how they message the way this fight played out soon enough. But for now, the audience asymmetry provides Trump an edge in that he doesn't have to win anyone over — he just has to provide enough cover to prevent Republicans from jumping ship in droves.
And while he'd like to hear Republicans all singing harmoniously from the 'Trump's perfect' songbook, a cacophony that clashes with Democrats' allegations against him may be all he needs to distract from a set of facts that many in the GOP don't want to discuss at all.