After news broke that a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was at the center of an explosive whistleblower complaint, Trump was largely undaunted.
But many of his senior advisers weren’t nearly as confident, and an internal debate roiled the White House.
The notes from his call with the Ukrainian leader showed the conversation was not as “perfect” and “totally appropriate” as Trump had declared, and they warned him that sharing it might not be exculpatory. Two of his top Cabinet secretaries argued against disclosure, saying it would set a dangerous precedent to share details of a private phone conversation between two world leaders.
Yet on Wednesday morning — seven days after The Washington Post first reported the nature of the concerns raised by a whistleblower in the U.S. intelligence community and a day after House Democrats opened a formal impeachment inquiry into the president — the White House released a rough transcript of the call, part of a broad gamble by Trump that he could once again beat the forces arrayed against him.
“He didn’t see anything wrong with the conversation he had with a foreign leader,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), an ally of the president, referring to the call in which Trump offered his Ukrainian counterpart help from the Justice Department in investigating former vice president Joe Biden, a political rival.
The helter-skelter way the administration handled the aftermath of the whistleblower complaint could be a harbinger of the coming impeachment fight, with the White House scrambling to respond to a mercurial and frustrated president, who is increasingly sidelining his aides and making decisions based on gut instinct.
Even some allies of the president worry that his team may not fully understand the potential upheaval that an impeachment fight could wreak on Trump and his administration, especially as he heads into the 2020 election.
Christopher Ruddy, a friend of Trump and chief executive of the conservative Newsmax website, said the president’s advisers appear to be underestimating the political dangers of impeachment proceedings. He argued that Trump could win reelection on the strength of his economic record and his rollbacks of regulations, but that an impeachment investigation could be a distraction.
“Even if people don’t feel removing Trump is justified, they may feel there’s too much disequilibrium, too much controversy, and it’s better to have somebody more predictable,” Ruddy said. “Swing voters may like Trump’s reformist agenda, but they don’t like controversy.”
Those in Trump’s orbit who say impeachment could help the president’s 2020 bid are mistaken, he added.
“Are they nuts?” Ruddy asked. “People can’t underestimate the amount of bad advice he gets from people who are not strategic thinkers.”
This portrait of Trump grappling with a whistleblower complaint and facing down an impeachment inquiry is the result of interviews with more than two dozen current and former White House officials, lawmakers, Republican operatives, and Trump allies, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid conversations.
Heading into the weekend, White House aides were divided over how to handle calls for him to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky and the full whistleblower complaint.
Over days of discussions, Justice Department officials — including Attorney General William P. Barr — and some of the president’s lawyers urged him to release notes from the call before he traveled to New York on Sunday to attend the United Nations General Assembly this week. But others, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, vociferously argued against it, and Trump delayed a decision.
Meanwhile, the White House was also receiving private pressure from Republican lawmakers, who said that the administration’s position — which allowed rumor and worst-case speculation to fester — was untenable and that Trump had to release something to move past the controversy.
Trump spent much of his time in New York worried about the issue, said aides, who described something of a split screen: the hubbub of world-leader confabs mixed with domestic political strife, and of mundane policy meetings infused with pitched rhetoric. Officials back in Washington found themselves largely out of the loop and struggling to catch up.
By Tuesday morning, Trump finally reached a decision to release the rough notes of his call the following day, and he shared the news that afternoon on Twitter, claiming that scrutiny over the “very friendly” call was “nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that the administration doesn’t comment on internal matters, but that “it has been quite clear that President Trump — who is the ultimate decision-maker — has called for transparency throughout this entire process.”
On Wednesday morning, aides invited roughly a dozen Republican lawmakers to the White House to preview and discuss the transcript before it was released to the public. At one point, Trump called in from New York, and attendees described him as generally in a good mood — “chagrined” but not angry, though skittish about some of the details.
At one point, the group began joking with the president that “this was one of his better” phone calls with foreign leaders, an attendee said. And even privately, Trump did not believe his conversation with the Ukrainian president was problematic, according to four people with whom he spoke.
“He feels it’s going to help him on balance. Rather than have it out there week after week, saying he is demanding a quid pro quo, he just gets it out here,” said Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican and Trump friend. “There are a number of Republicans in the House who are definitely anti-Trump who came up to me today and said, this shows nothing. They weren’t like defending him. They don’t really like him. They just say, ‘Is this the best they have?’ ”
Yet the frenetic messaging emanating from the White House further underscored the internal divides and undercut the administration’s official nothing-to-see-here posture. Mnuchin and Pompeo, for instance, appeared on the Sunday shows to say it was not appropriate to share private conversations between world leaders, only to have their arguments undermined in real time by the president, who began confirming details of the call and hinting that he would soon share the rough transcript.
The White House also accidentally blasted out all their Wednesday talking points to Democratic congressional offices — including to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — and then sent a follow-up message trying to “recall” their mistake. The talking points included attacking Democrats in Congress for “damaging our national security for political gain.”
And during his news conference Wednesday in New York, Trump pulled Vice President Pence into the controversy with him, urging the assembled reporters to also “ask for VP Pence’s conversations because he had a couple of conversations also.”
“They were perfect,” Trump said.
The House’s decision to move forward on impeachment adds a new wrinkle for Trump. Throughout former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, Trump allies and Republicans generally believed that the Democrats’ threats of impeachment were politically beneficial to the president — who almost seemed to be daring his opponents to launch an official inquiry.
But Trump never actually expected — or wanted — to be impeached, said two allies, who both added that the White House, as currently staffed, is not prepared for this type of all-encompassing battle.
Nonetheless, many in Trump’s world say an impeachment fight will benefit the president politically. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, predicted impeachment proceedings would backfire on House Democrats just as they did on House Republicans when he led the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and was accused of overreach.
“The Democrats have been sucked into a cul-de-sac where they will, from Trump’s perspective, run around chanting, ‘Impeach!’ ” Gingrich said. “I think that the president is very comfortable. It irritates [him], but he’s very comfortable strategically with what’s evolving.”
Some White House aides and outside confidants, however, worried that impeachment will also consume the remainder of Trump’s term. His trade deal with Canada and Mexico, for instance, is likely to be among the casualties, they said.
And as with the Mueller investigation, there is the risk that Trump’s frustration over impeachment — which he views as an attack on the legitimacy of his presidency — will come to so enrage him that it prompts him to begin lashing out and behaving erratically. In the words of one former aide, “It may lead to less structured output from the White House.”
In an effort spearheaded by Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s team is also trying to refocus the discussion on Biden’s son Hunter. Giuliani has urged Republicans to forcefully attack the Bidens, although some White House staffers have been exasperated by Giuliani’s combative television appearances.
“You all are going to have to write about this,” Giuliani told The Post in an interview Saturday.
Hunter Biden served for nearly five years on the board of Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private gas company, whose owner came under scrutiny by Ukrainian prosecutors for possible abuse of power and unlawful enrichment. Hunter Biden was not accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation. As vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the country’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who Biden and other Western officials said was not sufficiently pursuing corruption cases. At the time, the investigation into Burisma was dormant, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
Meanwhile, morale inside the White House is low, current and former officials said. There is a growing sense that this new controversy will echo the Mueller probe, consuming all of the White House’s bandwidth for the coming months and dashing hopes of pushing through even Trump’s modest legislative agenda.
With the president already acting as his own adviser, it was difficult to attract new talent to join the White House, several current and former senior administration officials said. And now, there is concern that some staffers may leave, eager to avoid the morass of impeachment proceedings.
Already, Republicans are finding themselves in uncomfortable situations. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), one of the Republicans who journeyed to the White House on Wednesday morning to receive a preview of the rough transcript, surprised even some of his own colleagues by proclaiming at a subsequent news conference, “No one has read this transcript.”
A spokesman later said he was referring to Pelosi opening an impeachment hearing before seeing the readout of the Ukraine call.
The challenges for Trump will continue in the days ahead. A senior White House official said Wednesday that the whistleblower’s complaint was likely to be released Thursday or Friday to the public.
Rachael Bade, Devlin Barrett, Alice Crites and Paul Kane contributed to this report.