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How The White House's Messaging About The Impeachment Inquiry Has Evolved


It has been exactly one month since the White House released a rough transcript of President Trump's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In that time, House investigators have heard testimony behind closed doors from a number of people connected to this story, bits of which have been leaked. We wanted to look at how the messaging from the White House has evolved over the last few weeks and how President Trump's allies have tried to remain in lockstep with that message, even as it collides with new facts dribbling out, so we brought in NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Hey, Tam.


CHANG: All right. Let's start at the beginning here. On September 25...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The White House has just released a transcript of President Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president.

CHANG: ...Trump asked for a favor and then brought up investigating the Bidens and the 2016 election. Can you just remind us, what did the White House have to say about that call?

KEITH: The White House said it was a perfect phone call. Essentially, nothing to see here.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Absolutely perfect phone call to the new president of Ukraine. That was a perfect call.

KEITH: And the remarkable thing is how little has changed. Here was President Trump today.


TRUMP: I had a perfect conversation with the president of Ukraine. Perfect.

KEITH: He just really does keep saying that same thing and hasn't really adapted to what has been a rapidly shifting story outside of the specifics of the phone call.

CHANG: Yeah. And another line that we keep hearing from the president and from the president's allies is that there was no quid pro quo.


TRUMP: There was no quid pro quo.

There's no quid pro quo.

No quid pro quo at all.

CHANG: What the White House is saying is that there was absolutely no exchange of favors whatsoever.

KEITH: Right. So on the very first day, when that call was released, the White House accidentally sent its talking points to a lot of people who they shouldn't have sent them to, and they got released. And the very first line of those talking points say, no quid pro quo or anything else inappropriate about the conversation between President Trump and President Zelenskiy. No quid pro quo. Perfect phone call. Those have become sort of the calling cards of the Trump defense, much like no collusion.


TRUMP: No collusion. No obstruction. No nothing.

CHANG: Yeah.

KEITH: The line that was repeated again and again during the Russia investigation.

CHANG: OK. So that has been the repeated mantra. But a lot has happened. I mean, there have been these text messages that have been made public now. There's been testimony from Bill Taylor.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Bill Taylor, the president's top diplomat in Ukraine, today up here on Capitol Hill in which he lays out for...

CHANG: Who said President Trump did make military aid to Ukraine contingent on Ukraine investigating Trump's political opponents. So how has the White House adapted its message in light of all that?

KEITH: Largely, the White House hasn't changed its message, though there was that one disastrous press briefing last week where acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney completely undermined the White House message on quid pro quo.


MICK MULVANEY: I have news for everybody. Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy.

KEITH: Mulvaney ended up having to walk that back completely, and since then the White House and their allies have fully retreated back to the old refrains of perfect phone call and no quid pro quo. And they are much more focused on process.

CHANG: Right. I mean, Republicans have been arguing that the Democrats have been doing this all behind closed doors, nothing's been in public view.

KEITH: Yes. That is the new argument, that Democrats are holding these closed-door depositions leaking out only information that would hurt President Trump, nothing that would help him, trying to bring down his poll numbers. And President Trump has complained that Republicans simply aren't doing enough to defend him.


TRUMP: Republicans have to get tougher and fight. We have some that are great fighters. But they have to get tougher and fight because the Democrats are trying to hurt the Republican Party for the election.

CHANG: But meanwhile, one of Trump's allies, Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, says the White House needs to get more serious about these impeachment inquiry proceedings.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think they're working on getting a messaging team together. You know, I was involved in impeachment of President Clinton. I know this sounds weird. But Clinton, (laughter), look what he did.

KEITH: What he did is he had a war room. He had people that were focused on fighting the impeachment so that President Clinton could focus on being president. And that's what Lindsey Graham argues President Trump needs to do.


TRUMP: But here's the thing. I don't have teams. Everyone's talking about teams. I'm the team. I did nothing wrong.

KEITH: That's what President Trump says. But inside the White House, there is a raging internal debate about how to handle this, whether they need a dedicated impeachment defense and what it would look like. And while all of this is happening, Democrats are continuing to move forward with the impeachment inquiry, and President Trump's message hasn't really changed in a month.

CHANG: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Thanks so much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.