Trump impeachment defense already under siege

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) -- President Donald Trump's aggressive new strategy to thwart the Democrats' impeachment offensive is already sinking under the weight of new revelations.

Trump tried to turn the tide Thursday, after struggling to counter the core Democratic argument that he had abused his power to hurt a political rival, Joe Biden, including staging a remarkable photo op in which he effectively asked China, America's rising geopolitical rival for global power, to help him win in 2020.

But an avalanche of disclosures about his administration's previous attempts to enlist Ukraine in his effort to smear Biden showed his White House is failing to contain a crisis that is threatening his presidency.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Trump is the release of text messages provided by his former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, who gave a deposition on Capitol Hill. The texts include a key message from Volker to a Ukrainian aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky, sent just before the infamous July 25 call at the center of the impeachment probe, which lays out how an investigation into Trump's political interests could help assure a meeting between the two presidents.

The unveiling of the text messages threatens to undermine one of the President and his supporters' key defenses: that there was no quid pro quo when Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter.

Trump's seeming obsession with undermining Biden's campaign may also present problems for him on the other side of the globe.

In addition to Trump publicly asking the Chinese to investigate the Bidens, CNN reported Thursday that Trump had brought up Biden and his political prospects to Chinese President Xi Jinping in a phone call back in June. The disclosure was the latest sign that the President was using his constitutional leeway to set foreign policy in order to advance his own political interests.

The gambit threatened to introduce a new conflict of interest into talks to ease the President's trade war with China. But on a deeper level it raised questions about Trump's willingness to embrace foreign intervention in US politics -- a possibility that haunted America's founders as they contemplated the shape of a new republic more than two centuries ago.

Before the latest breaking developments, the President had sought to combat the perception that he had secretly attempted to get a foreign power to intervene in US politics.

But then he appeared on the South Lawn of the White House to take another shot at Biden and to say that both Ukraine and China should investigate his potential 2020 foe, and then later tweeted that he had the "absolute right" to do so.

It was a brazen yet quintessentially Trumpian response to his crisis.

The President has spent days, unusually, struggling to switch a damaging political narrative triggered by evidence that he pressured a foreign nation to target a political opponent in an apparent abuse of power.

On Thursday morning, Trump strode from the Diplomatic Room of the White House in an attempt to slow the Democrats' impeachment train, or to seed sufficient fog to slow it down.

And in front of the cameras he committed the same transgression he did, privately, with Ukraine, this time also targeting China with his call for an investigation into his possible 2020 rival.

"By the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine," Trump said, as if the idea had just suddenly come to him in a flash of inspiration.

The President's move came across as an attempt to legitimize and normalize the pressure he imposed on Ukraine by simulating a similar kind of maneuver, publicly, this time with China.

There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden in Ukraine. There is also no evidence that Joe Biden received money from China. But a company that retained his son Hunter on its board, received a large investment of Chinese capital shortly after he visited the country with his father, though a lawyer for Hunter Biden has pushed back on Trump's characterization calling it "a gross misrepresentation."

The Biden campaign has said the President's behavior was an abuse of power motivated by panic that the former vice president would "beat him like a drum" in 2020.

Trump's Thursday volley seemed to be putting a test before the America people who will assess his political fate, through an impeachment process and any Senate trial, and in the 2020 election.

Can an offense really be impeachable and measure up to the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors if a President is quite happy to go out and commit it in public?

Events again outpace the White House

The question is, can Trump's new defense work?

New reports about Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General have emerged at such a pace, that the White House has never caught up.

The same trend played out on Thursday -- when The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump removed the US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch following complaints from Giuliani, who had tried to get Ukraine to start investigation into Biden and his son Hunter over business dealings. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens in Ukraine.

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The Washington Post reported that former US envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who resigned last week, said that he told Giuliani that he was getting untrustworthy information from Ukrainian political figures about Biden and his son.

Volker gave closed door testimony on Capitol Hill Thursday.

The reports give more fodder for Democrats who argue Trump committed impeachable offenses by using his power to set foreign policy for personal political gain.

And they could overwhelm the White House again, and complicate the President's efforts to mount an effective political counter-attack.

Trump seemed ready for the story about Yovanovitch, who is due to give a deposition next week, to drop.

"I heard very bad things about her. And I don't know if I recalled her or somebody recalled her, but I heard very, very bad things about her for a long period of time," Trump said at the White House.

Pence joins the cause

It didn't take long for Vice President Mike Pence, ever keen to show his loyalty to his boss, to join the offensive, amplifying claims that Biden and his son did something wrong in Ukraine that are not accurate but could still prove politically effective.

"I think the American people have a right to know if the Vice President of the United States or his family profited from his position as vice president during the last administration," Pence told reporters in Arizona.

"That's about looking backwards and understanding what really happened," Pence said. There is no evidence that Biden or his son Hunter committed any wrongdoing in dealings with Ukraine.

Pence's intervention, like Trump's, was a sign that the Trump White House is settling on a strategy of playing the man and not the ball -- trying to make the impeachment drama a question about Biden's behavior and not the conduct of the President -- that is documented on a transcript of a call with Ukraine's president that Trump released himself.

Trump's attack on Biden was also typical of his political approach since he claimed a rival was guilty of conduct of which he has also been accused. His refusal to fully divest from his businesses since taking office, office and the continued activities of his children in nations influenced by his foreign policy means he is surrounded by conflicts of interest.

In that sense, believing claims by Trump and Pence that the President was only interested in combating corruption in Ukraine requires a significant suspension of disbelief.

In a political sense, the President appeared to be characteristically trying to spin a narrative in which conservative media figures and his supporters can invest.

It will likely be insufficient to show the Democratic impeachment effort, which has quickly gathered a relentless momentum in the week since its formal launch.

But Trump's attacks could begin to build public fatigue towards the probe -- as did his months-long strategy of attacks did regarding the special counsel probe of Robert Mueller.

The President also put on display the reasons why he can be infuriating towards his fellow Republicans, some of whom have expressed frustration over White House strategy to CNN.

For the last few days, Trump has been insisting that the transcript of his call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was "perfect" and showed no wrongdoing.

At the White House on Wednesday, the President prevaricated when asked what exactly he wanted from the Ukrainian leader.

Yet on Thursday he pushed the envelope to extreme lengths, by making an overt call for election interference on the part of China -- much as he called on Russia to find Hillary Clinton's missing emails during the 2016 campaign.

Now Republicans -- wary of the President's hold on a base that could be deployed against them in primary campaigns, must choose whether they want to defend this new frontier of presidential overreach.

Another new 'low'

Aside from the political implications of Trump's new strategy is the fact that it marks yet another remarkable moment in the history of the nation's most powerful office.

After all, the President of the United States openly and brazenly stood on the grounds of the White House and asked a foreign country -- a Communist dictatorship -- defined by his own government as a strategic foe -- to play in a US election.

"I have to say, I mean, we've never had a president in the whole history of the United States, going back to 1789, who invited one of our strongest adversaries, in this case China, to intervene and interfere in our election," said Nicholas Burns, a veteran US diplomat who served Republican and Democratic presidents.

"That is corruption. No prior president would ever go there. It's legally wrong. It's morally wrong,", a former under-secretary of state, who is supporting Biden in 2020, told CNN's Kate Bolduan. "This is unprecedented. If anybody thinks that inviting this dictatorship in Beijing to investigate a distinguished American is a good idea, they should speak up because it's a terrible idea.

"Today is one of the worst things he's ever done to our democracy," he added.

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