The Republican National Committee funded a campaign that flooded the offices of about 36 House Democrats with more than 10,000 anti-impeachment phone calls in recent weeks.
The campaign, first reported by the New York Times, is just one part of the very diffuse defense Republicans have launched in an effort to shield President Donald Trump from a growing impeachment inquiry. Its goal, as reportedly described at a recent dinner of Republican aides, was to both tie up Democratic lawmakers’ telephone lines and attempt to influence them into opposing that inquiry.
While the strategies used by Republicans — including denying quid pro quo is wrong, attacking the whistleblower whose complaint led to the inquiry, and, despite evidence suggesting the opposite, that a White House memo of a call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is exculpatory — have been varied, they largely focus on the claims that Trump did nothing wrong and that Democrats are being unfair.
The calls seem to have focused on these talking points; the RNC said it hired a survey firm to conduct outreach and that that firm connected respondents who indicated they were not in favor of the impeachment inquiry with congressional offices. Beyond survey participants, the campaign also reportedly rallied Republicans through robocalls and automated texts that encouraged voters to call the offices, and through call sheets handed out at Trump rallies that contained a script to be read to lawmakers’ offices.
A spokesperson for the committee told the Times, “Our ‘stop the madness’ campaign has helped hundreds of thousands of voters get the information they need to reach out to their Democrat representatives and tell them to drop the phony impeachment inquiry and get back to work for the American people.”
Much of Republicans’ efforts to influence perception of the impeachment inquiry have been focused on swaying the public. Republican lawmakers and officials have held press conferences, released videos, and appeared on television to make their points about why they believe the inquiry to be unnecessary and wrong.
The telephone campaign represents a logical next step to this approach: having the public attempt to influence members of Congress. It is unclear what effect that strategy had, other than perhaps being annoying. House Democratic lawmakers voted nearly unanimously for an impeachment resolution last week, with just two of the chamber’s Democrats voting against it; 231 voted for it.
Trump’s latest strategy: have Republicans defend him on substance
The Times reports the telephone campaign began ahead of Congress’ Columbus Day break and resumed after. It came before Trump announced a change in strategy, directing Republicans to “go with Substance and close it out!”
Republican defenses against impeachment have always been evolving, and Trump has seemed to move freely among different ideas. The party has argued the whistleblower is a partisan figure; Trump has called him a spy. Trump has accused a leader of the impeachment inquiry of treason; Republican lawmakers have complained Democrats aren’t conducting the inquiry fairly.
But the call to focus on substance marked a big shift. In the weeks before it, Republicans had begun to coalesce around the argument that there was something wrong with the process itself. The call script given to rally goers told them to demand lawmakers “end this witch hunt,” and Republicans in Congress used similar language, with Sen. Lindsey Graham telling reporters at an October press conference, “I’m not here to tell you that Donald Trump has done nothing wrong. I’m not here to tell you anything other than that the way [Democrats are] going about [the inquiry] is really dangerous for the country.”
The impeachment inquiry resolution vote complicated this line of defense, however. It was not a vote for impeachment, but one on the process the inquiry would follow. The vote itself was a response to Republican complaints that no vote had been taken, and the resolution answered Republican concerns about closed hearings and the president having representation at the proceedings. Essentially, many of the process changes Republicans demanded were made.
This has left lawmakers in need of a new strategy, and Trump believes making substantive arguments is the way to go. Some lawmakers are reportedly ready to hop on board, but the wisdom of this approach is unclear, given it relies on overcoming witness testimony and a memo from the White House that would seem to make the case Trump sought to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
And increasingly, lawmakers and officials seem to be struggling to make defenses based on the substance of the allegations.
Sunday, Republican Rep. Tom Cole said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “If there was a quid pro quo, it certainly wasn’t a very effective one.”
The Washington Post has reported a number of Republican senators began to plot messaging that argues Trump may have engaged in quid pro quo but that doing so isn’t wrong. Sen. John Neely Kennedy reportedly told lawmakers that the allegations Trump faces should be compared to the US attaching conditions to foreign aid, and Sen. Ted Cruz added quid pro quo isn’t wrong without “corrupt intent,” which he said Trump didn’t have.
Kennedy echoed that sentiment when speaking to the Post: “To me, it all turns on intent, motive. ... Did the president have a culpable state of mind? … Based on the evidence that I see, that I’ve been allowed to see, the president does not have a culpable state of mind.”
The difficulty of arguing for Trump based on the merits of the scandal has led to some Trump allies arguing that there is nothing to the impeachment inquiry at all, to mixed results.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney got himself into hot water when he told reporters at a press conference that Trump had engaged in quid pro quo but that everyone should just “get over it.”
Rep. Mark Meadows put things more plainly, arguing that because Ukraine didn’t launch any investigations when Trump asked and because military aid Trump held up eventually made it to that country, “There is zero basis for impeachment.”
The RNC has largely stayed above this sort of workshopping and has instead — like the Trump reelection campaign — worked to leverage its sizable war chest into shaping opinion through advertising. For instance, in the week of October 2-9, the RNC spent $1.3 million on anti-impeachment advertising focused on 14 Democratic House freshmen. And both the RNC and Trump campaign have a lot of money to spend; together, the two organizations have raised $300 million in 2019.
Some of that money will need to go toward supporting campaign staff and other races, such as those on the state level, but election experts have said both groups can spend what they want on fighting impeachment, including on “legal and advocacy,” the Campaign Legal Center’s Adav Noti told the Times — and the RNC has funding to spare to do so.