WASHINGTON – After House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, the Oval Office occupant countered with a creative offer of his own: Impeach me? No, impeach you!
And so it was that Trump suggested, in a series of tweets, that perhaps the two California Democrats leading the effort against him – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee – should be impeached instead.
“Must all be immediately Impeached!” wrote Trump, who, in a separate missive, also debuted an “#IMPEACHMITTROMNEY” hashtag, after Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, criticized him for calling on Ukraine and China to investigate a political rival.
Left unsaid was the pesky fact for the president that lawmakers cannot, in fact, be impeached. But the schoolyard taunt offered another window into Trump’s “I’m rubber, you’re glue” approach to the impeachment inquiry now consuming his administration.
Though the White House has yet to launch an official war room to fight the Democratic investigation, it is putting forth something of a one-man platoon in the form of the president himself – in the role of playground bully, wielding his shamelessness like a weaponized rubber kickball, ready to pummel into the mud anyone who dares to level a charge against him.
The tactic epitomizes Trump’s “I know you are but what am I?” presidency, a long-held strategy in which Trump turns an accusation back forcefully on his accuser, regardless of how outlandish or fallacious the countercharge may be.
“Trump’s approach to turning his opponents’ attacks back on them is part branding, part trolling and part relentless, disciplined messaging,” said Cliff Sims, a former White House aide and author of “Team of Vipers,” about his time working in the Trump administration. “It’s proven to be extraordinarily effective. But it’s not even replicable because no one else is audacious enough to pull it off.”
An early, indelible example of this Trump gambit came during the 2016 presidential campaign, during the third and final debate with his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. At one point, after Clinton asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had praised Trump because “he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Trump cut her off.
“No puppet! No puppet!” Trump asserted. “You’re the puppet.”
More recently, Trump turned accusations of racism back on the same minority lawmakers whom he had offended. After sending a racist tweet, for instance, in which he urged the four Democratic congresswomen – known as “the Squad” – to “go back” to the countries they came from, Trump described them in another message as “a very Racist group of troublemakers who are young, inexperienced, and not very smart.” And after Trump described the majority-black district of Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is also black and chairs the House Oversight Committee, as a “rat and rodent infested mess,” the president twice accused his Democratic critics of playing “the race card” and called Cummings “racist” in a tweet.
Even some of his loyal defenders are unsure whether to applaud or condemn his sheer brazenness.
“On the one hand, I’m like: ‘That’s brilliant. That’s really effective,’ ” said a former White House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment of the president. “And on the other hand, I’m like . . . ‘Do the ends always justify the means?’ I’m very conflicted about it.”
Now, facing one of the biggest political fights of his presidency, Trump is deploying the same battle plan.
After a July phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for “a favor” to help dig up dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, the president found himself facing an impeachment inquiry into whether he was attempting to use a foreign power to improperly influence the election.
And so on Tuesday, the White House counsel released a letter to congressional Democrats, effectively accusing them of the same misdeed – trying to improperly influence the 2020 presidential contest.
“Many Democrats now apparently view impeachment not only as a means to undo the democratic results of the last election, but as a strategy to influence the next election, which is barely more than a year away,” the letter read.
The president has publicly called for China and Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, and on Wednesday, he and his campaign used Twitter and a TV ad to suggest with scant evidence that it is the Bidens, not him, who are guilty of wrongdoing.
Going back a bit further, Trump has frequently cast doubt on the assessment of his own intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential elections with the goal of helping elect him president. But now, he is turning the charge back on his political foes, espousing an unfounded conspiracy theory that a foreign government did interfere in the 2016 contest – but that it was Ukraine, with the goal of helping Democrats.
“President Trump is a better counterpuncher than Floyd Mayweather, and it starts with his ability to turn a perceived weakness into a position of strength,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It’s unorthodox, it confuses political opponents, and it works.”
Many of the allegations against the president boil down to the notion that he is abusing his power – another charge Trump regularly lobs at Democrats.
He has, for instance, repeatedly accused Democrats of “obstruction,” even while actively stonewalling two congressional investigations himself: The first a congressional inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election and now the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
And standing accused of overstepping the bounds of his executive authority, Trump on Wednesday took to Twitter to make clear that he believes former president Barack Obama is guilty of the same abuse.
“President Obama said that he did not have the right to sign DACA, that it will never hold up in court,” Trump tweeted, an apparent reference to the Supreme Court’s plans this term to take up the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has allowed hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, known as “dreamers,” to remain in the country without the threat of deportation.
“If the Supreme Court upholds DACA, it gives the President extraordinary powers, far greater than ever thought,” he continued.
Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser in the Obama White House and a co-host of the “Pod Save America” podcast, said Trump and his allies are operating under a philosophy of “whataboutism” – deflecting from his flaws and problems by trying to accuse his opponents of similar misdeeds.
“Trump’s strategy is based on the idea that down deep, he is never going to be able to convince people he’s good, but he might be able to convince people that everyone is as bad as he is,” Pfeiffer said. “Trump’s lies and Trump’s conduct are indefensible, so they don’t try to defend it – they just try to say everyone else is more like Trump than you think.”
The sheer shamelessness of this approach leads to a type of asymmetrical warfare that is tough to counterprogram, he added.
“This,” Pfeiffer said, “keeps Democrats up at night.”