Home / Trump Tries to Upstage Drama in the Senate With His Own Programming

Trump Tries to Upstage Drama in the Senate With His Own Programming

WASHINGTON — On the chilly grounds of the National Mall, within sight of the gleaming white Capitol where he is on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors, President Trump on Friday rallied abortion opponents gathered for their annual march and equated their battle with his own.

“They are coming after me,” Mr. Trump declared about a half-hour before the day’s trial session opened, with two of the juror-senators joining him onstage, “because I am fighting for you and we are fighting for those who have no voice. And we will win because we know how to win. We all know how to win. We all know how to win.”

For Mr. Trump, the strategy to win these days is counterprogramming. While Democrats and Republicans debate whether he should be convicted and removed from office, the president has offered up an alternative menu of events intended to focus attention on his economic record, present himself as a peacemaker and cater to his conservative base.

As the trial opened in earnest this week, he was hobnobbing with global corporate titans in Davos, Switzerland, trumpeting the growth of jobs and markets back home. As the House managers prosecuting him wrapped up their case on Friday, he became the first sitting president to attend the March for Life, bolstering his ties to the anti-abortion movement. And as senators begin posing their own questions next week, he plans to host Israeli leaders and release his long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

In case those are not enough to draw away attention from the proceedings in the Senate chamber, Mr. Trump has scheduled not one but two campaign rallies next week, one in New Jersey on Tuesday and another in Iowa on Thursday — even as four of his putative Democratic rivals are stuck at his trial, unable to campaign in the last days before the Iowa caucuses.

And he sought to get the last word in on Friday, giving an interview to air on Fox News at 10 p.m., just an hour after the House managers wrapped up their opening arguments. In the interview, he defended the decision to recall Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch, who was viewed by his associates as an impediment to their effort to get Ukraine to investigate Democrats.

Still, while Mr. Trump hoped to distract from the prosecution case led by Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, the past three days, the ever-ratings-conscious former reality show star was clearly irritated that his own lawyers would be opening their arguments on Saturday, when the television audience presumably may be smaller.

“After having been treated unbelievably unfairly in the House, and then having to endure hour after hour of lies, fraud & deception by Shifty Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer & their crew, looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.,” the president wrote on Twitter on Friday.

But the primary challenge for the White House legal team will not be earning ratings so much as doing no harm. With acquittal all but assured given the requirement for a two-thirds vote for conviction, the president’s lawyers will try to poke holes in the prosecution’s case to buttress Republican senators already inclined to vote for the president. At the same time, they will have to make sure they do not lose any of the handful of relative moderates who at one point may have been up for grabs.

Mindful that senators of both parties have grown weary and were eager to get out of town, if only for part of the weekend, the White House team agreed to a Senate request to start Saturday’s proceedings early and use only a portion of its time. The session will open at 10 a.m. instead of 1 p.m. and last no more than three hours. Then the White House team will put on a full presentation on Monday.

“I guess I would call it a trailer, coming attractions — that would be the best way to say it,” Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, told reporters.

Mr. Sekulow also previewed the aggressive and confrontational approach the White House lawyers intend to take when it is their turn. They will argue that it was the Democrats who accepted foreign help in 2016, citing a research dossier by a British former intelligence officer, and that Mr. Trump has been persecuted from the start. They will highlight a recent report criticizing the F.B.I. for the way it obtained a warrant to continue surveillance on a onetime Trump campaign adviser.

They will also focus attention on former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, arguing that Mr. Trump had legitimate reasons to accuse them of corruption. Mr. Sekulow said the managers not only opened the window to discussing the Bidens by spending so much time on Thursday defending them but they “kicked the door open.” He and his colleagues will argue that Democrats were trying to influence the 2020 election by taking Mr. Trump off the ballot.

“They put their case forward,” said Mr. Sekulow. “It’s our time next.”

As the trial has gotten underway, Mr. Trump uncharacteristically has limited his public pushback to select moments, instead making an effort to appear focused on other matters, much like President Bill Clinton sought to do during his own impeachment trial in 1999. He largely stuck to the topic of abortion at the march on Friday, turning to other issues during an afternoon public meeting with mayors from around the country.

But there have been moments this week when his grievance and anger got the better of him and he has lashed out, usually on Twitter. On Wednesday, as Mr. Schiff and his team had the Senate floor to themselves and without interruption all afternoon and deep into the night, Mr. Trump posted or reposted 142 messages on Twitter, many assailing the managers and their case, setting a record for his presidency.

The effort to counterprogram with other public initiatives has led to some strategic gambles. Mr. Trump’s decision to attend the March for Life in person on Friday defied the conventional wisdom that led other anti-abortion Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to play it more cautiously by staying away and sending taped or telephoned messages instead.

Likewise, the president chose now, of all times, to finally unveil his plan to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. For three years, he and his team have said they would wait for the most opportune moment, then suddenly concluded that this was that time, even though Israel is focused on its third election in a year and the Palestinians are not on speaking terms with the Trump administration.

Underscoring just how unsettled the moment really is, Mr. Trump plans to host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the White House on Tuesday, and has invited Mr. Netanyahu’s major campaign opponent, Benny Gantz, as well, unsure who his negotiating partner will be in just a matter of weeks.

Yet the president’s friend, Mr. Netanyahu, eager to hang onto office, may be just as eager for a distraction from his domestic troubles as Mr. Trump, leading to the odd spectacle of an American president on trial in the Senate for abuse of power hosting an Israeli prime minister indicted on charges of corruption.

For Mr. Trump, at least, the public remains largely unmoved. A new poll by The Washington Post and ABC News found that Americans remain as divided as they have been for months over whether he should be removed from office, with 47 percent for and 49 percent against. His approval rating stood at 44 percent.

Whether that will change as a result of the trial remains uncertain. But Mr. Trump said his legal team starting on Saturday will reinforce his message that he has been unfairly targeted by a partisan witch hunt.

“What my people have to do is just be honest, just tell the truth,” he said in the Fox interview. “They’ve been testifying, the Democrats, they’ve been telling so many lies, so many fabrications, so much exaggeration. And this is not impeachable.”

Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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