The Bottom Line

Transcript: What is the Trump impeachment inquiry about?

Read the full transcript of our discussion on the Trump impeachment investigation and where it is heading.

Steve Clemons: Hi, I’m Steve Clemons and I have a question. The impeachment investigation of President Trump may have begun, but where does it end? Let’s get to the bottom line. 

In super-divided America, your views on one picture are a very strong indication of where you stand on Donald Trump’s impeachment. Look at this picture. What do we see? The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, standing with mostly white men all around. Some of them are grimacing and she’s pointing at the president.

If you see the leader of the Democrats disrespecting the president of the United States, you’re probably anti-impeachment. But, if you see an act of brave defiance, a lone woman holding the president accountable, then you’re probably pro-impeachment. That’s how divided the United States has become. So is impeachment going to be a spark for an irreconcilable divorce between the people who live inside America or will it be a process that allows us to quote “get over it”, to coin a Trump team meme?

Fortunately, we have three people in the room that have all the answers. Greg Craig, the former lead defence attorney for President Bill Clinton during his impeachment in 1998 and former White House counsel under President Obama. John Fredericks, chairman of the Trump for President campaign for the state of Virginia in 2016 and adviser to Trump 2020 and a host of the John Fredericks radio show, which I have been a guest on. And Margaret Carlson, columnist for The Daily Beast and the first female columnist for Time Magazine.

Thank you all very much for joining us today and we’re going to try and get as much of this impeachment story on the table as we can. Margaret, let me just ask you for a moment to tell me what the dashboard looks like as a person who has not really gotten into this story and impeachment, what are the priority concerns? How is this shaping out from your perspective?

Margaret Carlson: So may I just go back to your intro for a moment and point at you, as Nancy Pelosi did, and say that in any encounter between the speaker and the president, the speaker always comes out ahead because she knows how to deal with an unruly child. And on impeachment, the president has lately decided to call it a lynching, which is a fighting word if I’ve ever heard one.

But his colleagues on the Hill have not embraced that word because they’re trying to find some way in which they protect their own office and don’t jeopardise it, but aren’t totally in Trump’s camp because Trump has done some things that actually do look impeachable and which, at this very moment, are being investigated by Democrats on the Hill.

Clemons: What are those impeachable things that the president has done that are concerning Republicans?

Carlson: Well, certainly when it slashes over into something to do with foreign policy, you even have golf buddies like Senator Lindsey Graham coming out against Donald Trump on Syria.

Less so on Ukraine, but nonetheless troubled by it because they know that Trump willingly put out the goods on Ukraine by releasing the transcript, which is part of the Trump mode now. Greg remembers when it was not the crime, it was the cover-up. That was always the problem.

Now, there’s no cover-up. Trump just admits everything and then discusses the lynching. He doesn’t dispute the facts and actually, it upsets the ordinary course of business because, actually, reporters don’t quite know what to do when they’re not hunting down the Watergate tapes or going to the underground garage to talk to Deep Throat.

So, you’re left just with the impeachment. And it’s much easier to say that it’s a renegade operation and you’re going after the president, it’s a witch-hunt than it is to actually go over the facts of the case because the facts are so damning.

Clemons: Greg, I think people looking at the impeachment question, I think part of it is a question of whether there have been illegalities, whether there have been high crimes and misdemeanours committed. So there’s a, to Margaret’s point, there has been a legal question. But Margaret also just mentioned Lindsey Graham and Syria and the question of abandoning the Kurds. The commander-in-chief has the right to designate where forces are and aren’t. And I would argue that that’s not an impeachable offence. That then throws into the question of political issues.

Lindsey Graham may be softening on the president because of policy differences as opposed to improprieties. I know you have a sharp legal mind, right? – Are we debating – Is it a political issue or is this a function of legality?

Gregory Craig: Let me talk about the process a little bit, based on my experience during the Clinton impeachment. There was a really scary moment for the defence lawyers when Senator Robert Bird was interviewed by Cokie Roberts just before the vote on the impeachment. And he said, “As far as I’m concerned, everything they’ve accused President Clinton of doing, he did, but I’m going to vote against his removal from office because it would be bad for the country.”

And so at the end of the day, the impeachment is a political process. So, the president should be worried about maintaining the confidence and the support of the Republicans in the Senate as much as he worries about whether or not he’s committing impeachable offences. Now, one of the reasons I think we know the impeachment process is under way and it’s going on now is because it’s really sucking the air out of everything else.

You see it in the newspapers now. There’s a daily impeachment briefing. You see it driving the campaign into the back pages of the newspapers. You see all the talk shows, breaking news, impeachment. You see it in the House of Representatives where at least six committees in the House of Representatives are focused on something to do with the impeachment.

That’s certainly happened in 1998 where everything sort of stopped until the impeachment and watched the impeachment process continue. And I think that’s beginning to happen now.

Clemons: The impeachment process with Bill Clinton was his second term.

Craig: True.

Clemons: And as I recall, and I could be wrong on this, his popularity ratings were sky high when he left office. Am I incorrect?

Craig: No, you’re correct.

Clemons: So, he went through the impeachment. So let me ask you –

Craig: He shut up during the impeachment.

Clemons: So John, is the impeachment process that has begun as our colleagues here have said, is this going to ultimately be good for President Trump and his political fortunes?

John Fredericks: It could be if they get the right messaging and they get some adults in the room. Right now, this is a tale of two cities and Margaret is right on some of these issues because look, the president didn’t do anything wrong as far as illegality. There’s no impeachable offence. There’s no quid pro quo. There’s no mention of Joe Biden. They can’t find it, but it doesn’t matter right now.

In this stage, that is irrelevant because the messaging coming out of this White House is absolutely horrific. And if anybody stood like me at that press conference that Mick Mulvaney had, my jaw dropped, almost hit the ground, I couldn’t believe it. First of all, you’d even have to have a press conference. You don’t have them anymore.

Secondly, he came out to talk about having the G7 at Doral, the timing of that was just mind-boggling and then he gets caught up in misstating or stating or whatever the hell he was doing. That had to be the most damaging press conference. And the messaging coming out of the White House is amateur hour, hit the gum. That’s why –

Clemons: And you’re a supporter, generally.

Fredericks: I’m part of the messaging team. I’m receiving this garbage.

Clemons: Right, right, right.

Fredericks: I’m receiving. I will even say it. I hit the delete button, Steve. That’s the issue.

Carlson: I have to have John get over it because I didn’t say there weren’t impeachable offences. In fact, I think Trump admitted to impeachable offences, so it’s not just Mick Mulvaney. By releasing the transcript of the call, which he somehow, in his adult thinking, thought benefited him, he did say the name, Biden. He did ask for a favour. He was keeping the money away from the president of the Ukraine to fight back against Trump’s pal Vladimir Putin. All of it is there, John, there is nothing left to prove.

Fredericks: Sure. Biden was never connected. There was never a quid pro quo with it, but it doesn’t matter, Margaret, to your point –

Carlson: I have a favour –

Fredericks: It doesn’t matter.

Carlson: To ask you, though.

Fredericks: Gerald Ford, when he was minority leader, wanted to impeach one of the Supreme Court justices and they said to him, “What is the impeachable offence?” And he said, “Whatever the hell the House of Representatives says it is.”

Fredericks: So, it doesn’t matter whether it’s offence or not. The bottom line is President Trump is going to get impeached by the House. They are going to impeach him. Pelosi has to manage the 26 Democrats that got elected in Trump’s districts, that if they vote for this, they’re going down in 2020. She realises that. It’s going to go to the Senate and right now, what they lack is a war room of adults.

Fredericks: Corey Lewandowski, Dave Bossie, Steve Bannon, people like that that can get the message out to Republicans because right now, it is completely [crosstalk 00:00:09:38].

Clemons: But let me ask you-

Carlson: If Corey Lewandowski is the adult in the room you are really in trouble.

Clemons: Ok, Greg Craig, let me ask you a question [inaudible 00:09:47]. If you came out or one of your colleagues during the Clinton impeachment process and was looking at one of the underlying offences and said, “Get over it, America,” which is what Mick Mulvaney basically said about the Ukraine call.

Craig: Worst thing he could have said.

Clemons: Yeah. And there’s now a meme. This is a meme. Get over it. We have t-shirts. Get over it. We have a film clip, I think, of him saying this.

Mick Mulvaney: I have news for everybody. Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.

Speaker 6: What about the Bidens?

Mick Mulvaney: I’m talking to Mr Carl. That is going to happen. Elections have consequences and foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. And what you’re seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, “You know what, I don’t like President Trump’s politics so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt that they’re undertaking on the Hill.”

Clemons: So Greg, if somebody had done that in the Clinton administration or maybe any other, I’m interested in what you think would have occurred because we’ve got t-shirts now that say it, with the O having a little orange wig on top of it.

Craig: This is probably the only thing I agree with John on today. I think they have mishandled the messaging. They mishandled the strategy. I think their mishandling the presidency. The reality is that when President Clinton was being impeached, he was segregated, walled off from the lawyering, from the strategising, from the public argument of the impeachment. And he spent all his time being president of the United States and he was very successful at it.

He negotiated a budget that was in surplus. He had a series of international successes, one of them the negotiation of the Wye plantation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He travelled abroad. Those six months, he was at his very best as the president of the United States and spent very little time talking about the issues associated with the impeachment.

And all the messaging, all the planning, all the coordination between the various components of the White House and our friends on the Hill were coordinated. So, the idea of someone just having a good idea and going out and saying, “Get over it.” That never would’ve happened [inaudible 00:11:55].

Clemons: John, you think this was a mistake?

Fredericks: It was horrific. It was a stupid mistake because it turned Trump from the victim to the aggressor. That’s why that made no sense. When I was there and he said that, I just shook my head. And then they came out with shirts and like you say, with a wig on the O. And up to that point, Trump was being positioned as the victim. This is a witch-hunt. This is fake news. I didn’t do anything. It was a perfect call.

Fredericks: And then it’s, “Well, yeah, get over it.” Get over what? The fact that he didn’t do anything. There isn’t anything to get over. So it garbled the message and took it back and the performance by Mulvaney, then he one-upped it by then going on, I think, Chris Wallace, Fox News Sunday, which was a very painful 15 or 20 minutes of you have to sit there through it.

But until they take this seriously, because right now it’s fake news, witch-hunt, now it’s a lynching. Until they take this seriously, they’re going to continue to lose public support. If you look at the polling out, Margaret, in the last several weeks, you’ve got three polls saying that 50 percent of Americans want him impeached and removed from office. That tells you right there. And one of those polls was [inaudible 00:13:15] last month and the other was Fox. This is not like CNN fake polls.

These are real with real metrics behind it. So, they’re losing public support. They better get their act together. I mean, because there’s going to be a trial in the Senate in Thanksgiving in November, and it’s real.

Clemons: Margaret, as both of you have said, support, there’s a new FiveThirtyEight poll that’s out that shows 49.3 percent support [inaudible 00:13:41].

Fredericks: They’re all saying the same thing.

Clemons: We have it up now for folks to see, 43 percent don’t support. There’s actually a CNN poll that just came out this morning that shows over 50 percent for the first time, both in favour of impeachment but also removal.

But Margaret, I mean, this is a tale of two worlds in a sense that in that 50 percent, 87 percent of Democrats support impeachment and removal and six percent of Republicans do. And I come back to that initial question I pointed out, is this a divorce happening inside the country that’s going to happen anyway or is there a way to get through this process, get over it, if you will, and get people back on the same turf again?

Carlson: Well, there’s already been a divorce. If you have 13,000 lies out there and Trump’s base don’t believe that there are any lies out there, there is just two discordant groups in the country that one cannot see what the other is seeing. Now in impeachment, I don’t think it’s a problem of the message because in this case, you have the facts and the law. If you don’t have the facts, are you the law? Well, in this case, the facts do support impeachment and so does the law.

But, in coming up with those articles, what would constitute impeachment? It isn’t up in the air, all of the discussion was about how do you control a king? Because that’s what the founding fathers were worried about. Trump behaves like a king and a lot of it had to do with abusive power against a foreign country. And we have that in so many of the things Trump has done and certainly in Ukraine. And although it’s not yet a focus of Democrats, the just willy-nilly abandoning of Kurdish allies in Syria –

Clemons: John and Greg, what do you say? What is it with Ukraine?

Fredericks: That is a political argument.

Carlson: No, it’s not.

Fredericks: That is a political argument. If you don’t like his position in the Ukraine and getting us out of these never-ending wars, which he promised he would do on the campaign, that was a staple of his campaign message to get us out, then vote him out in 2020. You don’t impeach him because you don’t like his policies. Now, you’re overturning the election.

Craig: Well, John, technically, they’re just going to Iraq. So, he’s kind of doing a little side there. Just going a few miles over a border, which is a squishy border anyway.

Fredericks: You’re right.

Craig: My bigger point is Ukraine. Look Ukraine, our friend, colleague, has just come out of a mess with Ukraine. We have Paul Manafort [inaudible 00:16:08] we have Hunter Biden on a company perhaps legally, perhaps suspiciously on a company in Ukraine.

What is it with Ukraine and why, when Ukraine has now been something that Rudy Giuliani has been tied into, why have the Republicans that have been in support of the president turning a blind eye to that? Why do they not see the request of the president of the Ukraine to investigate the Bidens as a disconcerting, even an illegal issue?

Fredericks: Because the whole Democratic Party malfeasance and investigating Trump started in Ukraine. Margaret knows it. Greg knows it. He can sit there and spin it.

Craig: I don’t know that.

Fredericks: That’s where it started. That’s where they tried to dig up the dirt on Trump. That’s where they hired GPS. That’s where they got Steele involved, the dossier, the whole business. It all started there. So the country is corrupt from the beginning. They started it there. Now, we’re tracing it back.

As far as the Biden thing is concerned, I mean, Margaret, how do you get on a board of directors of a company, an oil company that’s owned by the country when you have no experience in oil, no experience in gas, never been to the region, never been to Ukraine, don’t know the competition, and you get $50,000 a month and your father is over there as vice president, negotiating deals. How do you do that?

Clemons: So wouldn’t that be –

Carlson: And a Trump campaign manager is going to argue nepotism is wrong, given the Trump children on the –

Fredericks: What does that have to do with? They get paid a dollar a year? What on earth does that have to do with going on a [crosstalk 00:17:44].

Clemons: We can raise the question of Ivanka Trump’s licences with China.

Carlson: I’m just not going to stipulate to argue the facts. Okay? And my lawyer friend [inaudible 00:00:17:53].

Fredericks: The facts are there.

Clemons: But I think the bigger question is, does gravity work differently depending on where you sit. Greg?

Craig: Well, can I just comment on the polls, because I think one of the lessons that we got from the Clinton experience, and I think John will agree with this, is that it is possible to impeach a president when the country is divided. It is not possible to remove a president when the country is divided. That has to be something that most Americans support or it’s not going to happen. It’s got to be a bipartisan effort.

If President Trump is going to be removed, serious Republicans have to support that process, otherwise, it will not happen. That, I think, is just a fact of the political situation. Now, if I were in your shoes, I would be a little worried about what Senator Lindsey Graham is saying about this Ukraine situation because he said he would be troubled if it was proven that President Trump ordered the withholding of military assistance to the Ukrainians in exchange for the opening up of an investigation of the Bidens. That would trouble Lindsay Graham.

Craig: That sent a signal that he thought that that might be an impeachable offence and abuse of presidential power. So if I were in your shoes, I’d be concerned about exactly Margaret was saying.

Clemons: But then on top of that, with Lindsay Graham, when Lindsey Graham really clicked in, because Lindsey Graham has said that if there are crimes beyond the call, and then he began talking about betraying the Kurds in Syria and he hasn’t, to my knowledge, mentioned the Doral Trump resort. But, John, you did. Are these issues of the decisions the president made beginning to move the needle of propriety of what’s acceptable behaviour with some of the folks that you know so well?

Fredericks: Or it gives McConnell leverage when Trump is exonerated in the Senate or not convicted, however you want to phrase it. In the reality –

Craig: He’s acquitted.

Fredericks: In reality, the Democrats are going to need, what, 20 Republican votes in the Senate, right? It’s inconc –

Craig: It won’t happen without it, it will not happen without it.

Fredericks: It’s inconceivable that they’re going to get there in a divided country. But what is conceivable is that the McConnell Republicans gain an inordinate amount of leverage over President Trump in the last 18 months of his term before he gets reelected, which I think he will, in 2020 and basically, a lot of their votes to acquit him become conditional on something. Right. That’s what I’m most concerned about.

Clemons: Mitch McConnell just wrote a fiery op-ed in the Washington Post.

Fredericks: From the Trump base which is … I’m a true believer in the “America First” agenda. So, I’m a true believer. So I’m more concerned about the advancement of our philosophy and agenda going forward than I am about any short-term political process. So, that’s the leverage that McConnell has. McConnell can end up calling the shots between January of 2020 and the end of that term, if Trump gets reelected then, on his own, all bets are off. [crosstalk 00:21:03]

Clemons: Greg and Margaret, let me put one thing to you. And when you were running things for Bill Clinton, did you go after and harass and bully defecting Democrats?

Craig: No.

Clemons: Not you personally, but did the team go after? Because what we see happening right now with Donald Trump versus Mitt Romney is pretty dramatic.

Craig: We had problems, I think, with defecting Democrats in the House of Representatives in the early stages, but the way in which the House Republicans managed the impeachment process in the House was so partisan that it drove all the Democrats back. It wasn’t they liked Clinton that much. It was that they couldn’t stand Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich.

But let me just point something out. I think that is an interesting … The two leaders in the United States Senate both participated in the Clinton impeachment process. Chuck Schumer was in the House of Representatives when the hearings were conducted and when the votes occurred on December 19th, 1998, he was then elected to the Senate and participated in the trial in the Senate.

McConnell was in the Senate during 1998. Both of those individuals know what the trial is likely to look like. Is it going to have live witnesses? Is it going to have videotape depositions? How long is it going to take? I hear that McConnell has told his caucus, “Get ready for a six-week trial.”

Clemons: Let’s do a snapshot. We’re just in the last couple of minutes. Margaret, as you look at what’s going to unfold, how do you predict, let’s say President Trump’s chances of not getting impeached?

Carlson: You know, it’s a given and so discounted that the Senate will not vote to convict him.

Clemons: Convict.

Carlson: So, that part really doesn’t matter. I mean, there’s no drama involved. And I mean, that’s too bad because the Republicans in the Senate have shown themselves to be completely spineless against this president. They came here not to do a job. They came here to stay in perpetuity. They’re so afraid of losing an election.

Carlson: So, how does it turn out? It turns out that he runs for reelection, but I think deeply wounded, deeply because people see an administration that’s entirely chaotic without basically a cabinet. That cabinet meeting that Trump had yesterday conducted absolutely not one piece of the country’s business. It was all about that phoney emoluments clause. It was just one thing after another. I don’t know how many articles of the Constitution the president is willing to do away with. Governing is not taking place. I think this –

Clemons: Well, the constitutionalists out there in the country are having a fit. But John, how do you see, just a quick survey of how you see this unfolding?

Fredericks: I think he’ll be impeached in the House. There’ll be two tied articles of impeachment that we’ll pass. Pelosi, who is probably the most masterful speaker in history, and by the way, that’s why there’s no nickname for her. Right. We’re afraid of her. She’s very good and she’s running this thing with unbelievable precision. He was going to get impeached and then he will be acquitted in the Senate. There’s going to be a trial. They’re going to bring other witnesses in.

Clemons: Lots of drama.

Fredericks: Lots of drama. Trump will use it and get reelected again in 2020.

Clemons: Greg, final word.

Craig: It’s going to be interesting to see what the speaker does between now and Thanksgiving. I agree that it’s going to end up with an impeachment, maybe two, maybe three articles, but she has a challenge about trying to educate the American public. So she’s going to have to have some public hearings and how is she going to organise those hearings? Who is she going to call? How is she going to present the case to the American people?

Clemons: Got it.

Carlson: And can I just –

Clemons: So with that, no. I apologise, we’re out of time. I’d like to thank you all for being with us. Margaret Carlson, columnist for The Daily Beast and first female columnist for Time magazine. John Fredericks, chairman of Trump for President campaign for the state of Virginia in 2016 and adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign and host of the John Fredericks radio show. and Gregory Craig, the former lead defence attorney for President Bill Clinton during his impeachment in 1998 and former White House counsel under President Obama. Thank you all very much for being here. Sorry to cut you off, Margaret. Sorry.

Carlson: I’m sorry, too.

Clemons: Thank you.

Clemons: So what’s the bottom line? Some see the start of an impeachment process as conviction of President Trump in and of itself. Others see it as a frivolous political act by desperate Democrats who cannot truly succeed in removing him from office. They see it as, I don’t know, Shakespeare might say sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Clemons: The bottom line is that impeachment is always political. Trump’s allies are going soft, not because of the alleged crime of telling Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, but because he also tried to host a big global event, the G7 at a Trump resort. And also because he abandoned America’s Kurdish allies to Turkey.

Clemons: America is deeply and internally divided, and this Shakespearian drama is going to be playing out for a very long time. And that’s just the way it is. See you next week.