WASHINGTON, DC — As Democrats sped up their impeachment inquiry over the past week, President Donald Trump remained mostly quiet, at least in public.
Trump administration aides have been worried for days that the President hasn’t grasped the enormity of what he is facing him in the impeachment inquiry. But he has begun lashing out privately, saying Democrats are focused on “bullshit” — a complaint he took public in all-caps on his Twitter feed Wednesday.
In recent days, Trump has taken on a more combative stance, people familiar with his mood say. His appearances on Wednesday stood in sharp contrast to his last extended comments on the matter, which came during an uncharacteristically low-key news conference in New York last week.
On Wednesday, he broke his silence furiously. During two appearances at the White House, Trump made no effort to veil his unbridled disgust at the crisis engulfing his presidency. And he confirmed the fears of many of his allies: that the upcoming fight will consume him as he battles to clear his name.
There was little strategy evident as the President railed against Democrats and the media during public events with Finland’s president. And there were few new answers that might help alleviate the situation he finds himself in after asking a foreign counterpart to investigate a political rival.
Instead, there was hot, burning rage, rampant misdirection and outright lying that provided a preview of a dark and unsettled season ahead.
“This is the greatest hoax. This is just a continuation of what’s been playing out since my election,” Trump said during an East Room press conference that became progressively more heated as Trump faced questions about his predicament. “This is a fraudulent crime on the American people.”
As one reporter, Jeff Mason of Reuters, repeatedly pressed Trump on what he wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do with regard to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, the President grew irate — without answering the query.
Trump’s fury came as Democrats on Capitol Hill ramped up their efforts, warning the White House to expect a subpoena demanding documents related to Trump’s handling of Ukraine.
The House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who has become the subject of Trump’s ire, warned against potential witness intimidation or “incitement to violence.” He said obstruction of justice could be added to any articles of impeachment.
“We’re not fooling around here,” Schiff told reporters.
Trump responded in the Oval Office, declaring Schiff should be looked at for “treason” for dramatizing a version of the Ukraine call last week.
“It should be criminal. It should be treasonous. He made it up; every word of it, made up,” Trump said seated next to the visiting Finnish leader, who sat mostly expressionless.
Whether the President’s new public demeanor means he will now take aides up on their offers to form an impeachment response team or hire new lawyers remains to be seen. Trump has grown upset at reports he’s looking to stand up an impeachment “war room,” believing they make him look weak.
Instead, Trump has adopted the same approach he took toward the Russia investigation: seek to discredit the investigators while painting himself a victim of a bureaucracy gone rogue.
Trump’s allies have expressed concern at that approach. For starters, Trump has already released enough damaging information — in the form of his Ukraine call transcript and the whistleblower complaint — for the American public to form their own opinions of the situation.
And while Trump at least sought to project the appearance of a presidency-as-normal during Robert Mueller’s probe, he is making no such attempt now. He has written off any further cooperation with Democrats while the impeachment inquiry proceeds, claiming they are unfocused. And he’s shown an inability to ignore the crisis in public.
Part of Trump’s fury is rooted in his belief following the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation that he was in the clear, according to advisers. The new investigation only continues the clouds of inquiry that have followed Trump his entire presidency.
“I get three days of peace, and I’m walking into the United Nations, going to meet with the biggest leaders in the world, and I hear about the word impeachment. I said, what did I do now?” Trump said during his news conference on Wednesday.
Part of Trump’s irritation at the impeachment matter has centered on its ties to his foreign policy. Trump has long been sensitive about appearing politically weak to his foreign counterparts, something he vented about during the Mueller investigation. Now, it’s precisely those interactions with world leaders that are coming under scrutiny.
As he hosted Sauli Niinisto, the Finnish president, at the White House, Trump made passing attempts to underscore the diplomacy he was conducting — and the impropriety of his looming impeachment on the act of being president.
“I’m sorry to bother you with this, Mr. President, because we have other things to talk about,” Trump said in an aside during his Oval Office appearance.
But even the visiting Finns couldn’t help but be intrigued at Trump’s plight. When it came time to ask Niinisto a question, a reporter in his press corps inquired: “I have to ask what kind of favors has Mr. Trump asked from you?”