Inside Republicans' defense strategy for Week 2 of impeachment hearings
Republicans' goal this week is to create as much distance as possible between President Trump and the witnesses and make the case that Trump himself never specifically ordered a halt on aid to Ukraine with the intention of forcing a political investigation.
Behind the scenes: Republicans think Trump's former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former NSC official Tim Morrison will be their star witnesses, though some are griping that Schiff has tucked their hearing into Tuesday afternoon, Republican officials working on impeachment tell Axios.
- "Their testimony is super important, and Schiff knows they undermine his case. So what he's done is taken these two critical witnesses and buried them in the afternoon when no one pays attention," one GOP official said.
And while Democrats think Gordon Sondland will be a damaging witness for the president, Republicans think they can use him to their advantage.
- They'll say Sondland only talked to the president a handful of times about Ukraine, and he was eager to please Trump.
- They'll also focus on the idea that Sondland's knowledge was "presumed" and the president never directly linked the two.
- Still, they concede that Sondland's decision to revise his testimony to say he told a Ukrainian aide that military assistance was tied to an investigation of Burisma could be problematic.
Meanwhile, White House communication with the Hill has tightened over the past week, according to people involved. Trump has made clear to aides he wants them to fight on substance — "he's done nothing wrong" — not just process, a senior administration official said.
- The White House has been monitoring the Hill for any signs of wobbliness. Some senior aides were concerned about Trump's tweet attacking Marie Yovanovitch — believing that it was the type of thing that could fracture Republican support.
- Two senior officials told me that Trump has been advised that his Yovanovitch tweet was not helpful.
What to watch: Republicans will continue to hammer Schiff about bringing in the whistleblower to testify, which Democrats have repeatedly said is a nonstarter.
You'll also see Republicans attack Democrats for trying to ditch the "quid pro quo" language in exchange for describing Trump's actions as "bribery" — accusing them of playing politics.
The bottom line: "So long as this impeachment stays in the echo chamber of hyperpartisan Democrats and their allies in the media and doesn't break through into the country," an administration official said, "we have the advantage."
- The White House is betting that many voters are confused, only vaguely interested and "tuned out," the official added.