Inside Trump’s Impeachment Bunker

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S1: Underneath the Oval Office, there’s a basement room. The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison describes it like this.

S2: It’s a place that you get terrible cell phone reception. It is literally like a bunker, like no windows, no. There’s nowhere to look. Nothing else to do down there, you know. And that’s the reason why no one is really in there for very long. This is kind of like a temporary space.

S1: This is where the president’s impeachment strategy is being crafted.

S2: And I don’t want to overstate how complicated the strategy is or how intricate it is, because the biggest problem that people have when they’re trying to communicate a message for this administration is figuring out how to keep the president on the same message as the people who are working for him.

S3: And while Sarah doesn’t want to overstate the work being done here, she’s watched as words and ideas bounce from this room down to the Capitol into the news cycle.

S4: Then back to the South Lawn where the president and his staff amplify them.

S5: There are these viral moments and key lines that you can tell are going to get picked up and repeated. And you’re if you’re watching Fox News or if you’re listening to certain conservative radio hosts, you will hear those messages again.

S1: So when you saw Pamela Karlan, the law professor, last week used Baron’s name and make wordplay with it, which is the Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility.

S6: So while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.

S7: Thank you. Were you like, I can see that’s going to get swept up?

S5: Well, I heard from sources immediately that that was a moment that would create outrage.

S7: Would you think about that?

S8: Well, I think the woman is unhinged and should not be a law professor anywhere. You know, she went into this so biased. We knew all the.

S1: And if it seems to you, listening to exchanges like this one, that Republicans have tightened up their message. Sarah says that’s because the work being done by the people coming in and out of that White House war room.

S2: I mean, it’s such an unusual thing to call any thing in this administration a tight ship because it always feels a little chaotic. And I think it is by design. The tightness of the ship also has to do with just like the tightness of the message, which isn’t concerned with the details of what people are talking about day to day and in these hearing rooms.

S4: It’s just repeat the same thing over and over again.

S2: Yes. And that is one of the things that the Democrats have really struggled to do.

S3: So today, Sarah is going to take us inside the bunker where Republican outrage over impeachment is born. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: The White House impeachment war room. It’s only been set up in the last few weeks as recently as October. The Trump team’s response to the Democratic inquiry seemed scattered even to fellow Republicans on the Hill. That’s when Senator Lindsey Graham held a press conference imploring the White House to buckle down, change their approach.

S5: I think what’s important to remember is if you are going to go back to the end of October, you want to go back to what led Lindsey Graham to feel he needed to have that press conference. If people can think about back to the moment when Donald Trump unexpectedly announced he was going to pull troops from Syria, he unexpectedly announced he was going to host the next G-7 at his own resort, the Miami Doral Resort. And while he was doing this, everyone knew that impeachment was coming. Everyone knew that this was a process because Nancy Pelosi had already announced that it was going to be something that was going to happen. And yet you had Donald Trump sort of chipping away at some pretty important issues and making it very difficult for Republicans to. To competently rally around him, it sounds like Republicans on the Hill were feeling a little left out. Absolutely, and they were also feeling really surprised. So there were things that were happening that they did not think we’re going to happen. So Lindsey Graham decides at the end of October that he’s going to deliver a message and holds a press conference and invokes of all people. Bill Clinton in the Clinton administration as an example of how to do something right.

S9: I know this sounds weird, but Clinton. Well, look what he did. What he did is he had a team that was organized, had legal minds that could understand what was being said versus the legal proceedings in question. And they were all message every day. The President Clinton defended himself, but he never stopped being Bush.

S10: And that’s such an unusual thing in this moment where everyone’s so fractured and Republicans and Democrats are so in their own corner. And Lindsey Graham was, of course, a House prosecutor during the Clinton impeachment. So you had a front row seat in trying to get Bill Clinton impeached. And he saw exactly how that worked. And he was a really aggressive prosecutor during that process. So he knows what he’s talking about when he comes to an impeachment battle.

S5: And he stood up and he told reporters that. The Clinton White House and the Clinton administration was on message every day and they were disciplined and and Lindsey Graham was extolling the virtues of that. He then said, I hope that that serves as a model for this White House.

S9: But I think that was probably the single best thing he did, quite frankly, to avoid that. I’m hoping that will become the model.

S5: And it really resonated. Lindsey Graham was saying that publicly, but he was also urging privately that Donald Trump bring in a team to help manage this process.

S1: So can you introduce me to these people who came on? It’s it’s Pam Bondi and Tony Saige after after the Lindsey Graham press conference.

S5: There was there were efforts to figure out who could come in and manage this, who could who would be the person that was going to who were gone, who were the people who were going to try to coordinate this anti impeachment war room? And Jared Kushner and Ivana Trump. We’re looking for people. Donald Trump was looking for people himself, although he really resisted bringing someone in because he felt that by announcing or even acknowledging that he needed a defense group, no group that was going to come in and defend him against impeachment. It was an it was a sort of tacit admission of guilt. He he would say, I didn’t do anything wrong. So I don’t need anyone to come in and defend me.

S1: And so he was like, that makes the job of these people harder, because then you have to do so much ego management in addition to the messaging so that your message is the message he accepts.

S5: You’ve hit on one of the key things that these two hires bring to this equation, which is the trust of the president. He always believes that aides are trying to undermine him. But yes, much of what Pam Bondi and Tony Saige have to be able to do and had to be able to do was have the trust of the president so that he would be open to their. Message.

S1: What made him trust, for instance, Pam Bondi?

S5: So Pam Bondi is a two time attorney general from Florida. She knows Donald has known Donald Trump for many years. He obviously spends a lot of his time in Florida. Mara Lago and the two of them.

S10: She describes him as a friend who happens to be the president of the United States and has been a fierce defender of his for a long time. When he was running, she appeared at rallies for him after the Access Hollywood video emerged. There were very few people who were willing to do that. So she’s a very she’s a full throated Trump defender. And she’s also somebody who has been a real voice and presence on Fox News.

S6: We know from 2016, from the day the president got elected, they have been going after him and they’ve said they’re going to impeach our president. So what if they had so far absolutely nothing. They have. What about Tony Sayegh, Tony Saige?

S10: He was tasked with basically selling the tax overhaul. And what Tony CIA had to do was contact a lot of the same people that he now has to be in touch with in terms of just it’s herding cats, figuring out, do we have your vote on this and what are the things that you need for that? And how are you going to talk about that? There’s obviously a legislative component about that. But what Tony provides is somebody who has really deep connections to Fox News. He was a Fox News contributor for years.

S5: You worked for Jeanine Pirro when she was running for elected office in Westchester many, many years ago. And so he has deep relationships both in the media and on the Hill, which he had to cultivate during his time working for Steve Manoogian. And the other thing that I should say about both of these people is that both of them are close to the Trump, a lot of different members of the Trump family.

S1: So these two people who the White House has brought in to manage their message, it sounds like they’re deeply connected to the Trump’s themselves. But then also really good and really experienced at this sort of high touch management of Republicans on the Hill. That is what the White House needed. So how did things change when they came in?

S2: Well, one of the first things that happened when they were hired was they went to the Hill and briefed the communications staffers on the relevant committees. And it’s crazy that that hadn’t happened yet. Right. Yes, it is crazy that that hadn’t happened yet. And it’s such a simple kind of anti impeachment. One to one class would probably teach you that. And I think that that from my reporting and talking to people who are on the Hill and and trying to figure out how they are going to, in fact, communicate to their constituents about what’s happening in these impeachment hearings, having those kinds of conversations and just knowing that you can communicate with people who are also in touch with the president and are are kind of running point on these issues is incredibly valuable. And staffers that I spoke to on the Hill just talk about how much more comforted they were to know that they could tell their boss, their congressperson. The White House called this morning and they told us, you know, the White House amorphous Lee, someone representing the White House called us and we’re in touch. And that is something that Congress people want to know when they’re going out and trying to to publicly defend something that’s happening. And what you don’t want is someone going out and saying this should be dismissed. We you know, we want to end this immediately. And someone else saying, well, we’re really looking forward to a trial in the Senate. One needs to have everyone kind of in the same playbook.

S1: Well, you really lay out this these sort of multi part steps that the White House took to winnow their message and make sure that everyone was saying the same thing.

S5: First thing that you said that Pam Bondi and Tony Saige did was they didn’t get into characterizing Trump’s thinking, why people who’ve tried to characterize Donald Trump’s thinking often find themselves cut off at the knees by a change in his thinking. So the reporting that I was doing around these two new hires was that they knew Donald Trump well enough to know that that was a losing strategy. And so one of the things that Tony Sayegh and Pam Bondi knew was that they had a process that they could focus on, but they were never going to try to get into the mind of the president, which I’ve never been there. But it seems like a difficult place to figure out what exactly is going on, which leads to this next really important.

S1: Step, which is we’re going to attack the process. We’re not going to talk about the facts. We’re not going to talk about, you know, what really went on here. But we will talk about this being an unfair, too fast process.

S2: Yes. And this is something. There’s no question that attacking the process. It’s also part of a playbook that has been used many times in other political situations. But this is one where this White House is not participating meaningfully in the process. And so it gives the people who are communicating about it all the more leeway to just say this is not a fair process. This is staged. And I think that that at the attack on the process is one of the most. Effective things that this team can do, partly because there’s a real freedom to that, which no matter no matter what’s going on in the in in these hearing rooms.

S5: If you know that the process or if you can say that the process is not valid, then you don’t have to get bogged down in the intricate, earnest effort to try to unravel what’s happening inside the room.

S1: So I want to talk about one particular moment, which is when Gordon Sandlin was testifying. And, you know, he gave this testimony that was very both sides. You know, in one sense, he was confirming the quid pro quo things and another. He. He wasn’t and sort of saying, well, who’s to know? So he was doing both of those things. And it was a chance to really see how both the Democrats and Republicans sort of fixed their strategy to that because he was so slippery.

S11: Why do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas. What do you want? What do you want?

S1: And you saw Trump come out on the South Lawn of the White House with this piece of paper saying, oh, gosh, what was it? Two times? It was it was I want nothing. I want nothing.

S11: I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. So let’s this the right thing.

S12: Then he says this is the final word from the president of the United States. I want nothing.

S1: And in liberal mainstream media, however you want to phrase it. There’s a lot of focus on that note. Right. Silliness. Right. But then it sounds like this communications team saw it very differently.

S5: Yes. This is a fascinating moment. You have everyone who is gathered in the Eisenhower Building across the street from the White House. There it’s somewhere around 20 or so people gathered there whose task is to do this. They’re working with Tony Saige and Pam Bondi. There are people from the communications staff at the White House who’ve been sort of seconded over to do this. And while they’re watching the president walk out onto the lawn with his notebook, that will be mocked on late night television in a matter of hours. He says, I want nothing. I want nothing. No quid pro quo. And they spontaneously stand up and applaud because they’re so happy that he. Did that, and the way that it was described to me was that he came out and delivered a talking point that they were all behind and that they all wanted to have resonate. And it allowed this team to really feel like two things. One, they felt he was changing the news cycle, that by doing that, he was grabbing the attention for that moment. And it’s interesting because the people in that room felt that the news cycle changed from that moment. And I heard from other people afterwards who were just readers saying that wasn’t that didn’t change the news cycle, that no. That moment was one of where people were mocking him for the rest of the day for doing that. And it showed perfectly that response showed perfectly how you can watch one thing happen. And there can be two entirely separate interpretations. It’s not even interpretations. You just pick the facts you want to highlight. And and zero in on those. So if there was a moment that really encapsulated the work of this team and the difficulty of trying to figure out what the quote unquote message will be from impeachment, it was Gordon sunland’s testimony and Donald Trump’s reaction to it.

S1: There’s this final thing that you highlight that these guys are doing, which is making this end run is what they called it around the mainstream media, doing a lot of local radio hits, doing a lot of appearances on Fox News. Why is that important?

S5: For years, Republicans have felt like they don’t get a fair shake in the, quote unquote, mainstream media. And Donald Trump has only taken that to the endthe degree. And one of the things that this team is doing and it’s not just Tony Saige and Pam Bondi, they have Donald Trump on regional radio interviews.

S2: They have parts of the communications staff, on regional radio interviews. They were going to they were going broadly to a lot of different congressional districts. But one of the things that they are doing is going to districts where there’s a Democratic Congress person in a district that Trump won in the 2016 election. So vulnerable places, places where the individual congressperson could feel or be made to feel vulnerable about a vote for impeachment. And that really is something that is important, because what’s coming after impeachment, if everything happens the way that the experts think it will happen is the 2020 election, when Donald Trump is going to be able to use this as a campaign issue. And so so they’re kind of haunting these Democrats who might be malleable and yeah, maybe a little wobbly about how the impeachment process is going. And they’re not speaking to those congresspeople directly. They’re speaking to their constituents and constituents who have supported Donald Trump 2016, but then made a different choice in 2018, but might be made to feel that this is an unfair process and the Democrats are railroading this president. That’s the message that they are very consistently and aggressively delivering. And so when we talk about Donald Trump liking to be on offense, that’s a perfect example of that.

S1: And for now, for Republicans bringing on this brand new team playing offense, it feels like it’s working.

S5: I mean, certainly Lindsey Graham told me that hiring Tony Saige and Pam Bondi was a game changer from his perspective. It was a big deal.

S1: And he’s the guy who kind of helped kick this into motion.

S5: He’s the guy who helped kicked it into motion. And that interview came through very late in the process. And it was so interesting. And I really wanted to get him on the phone to ask him, how do you feel this has gone? You called for for something like this.

S13: How do you feel this is working? He told me exactly how he felt, which was that he had made a big difference. It was a game changer that there was a lot of nervousness before they were brought on. And people feel a lot better now.

S14: Sarah Ellison, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for having me. Sarah Ellison writes for The Washington Post, and that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson. Jason De Leon Morris Silvers and Daniel Hewett. I’m Mary Harris. Come say hi to me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk and no matter what. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.