Impeachment looms large in White House midterm plans

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rips correspondents’ dinner, ‘filthy’ Michelle Wolf White House Correspondents’ Association: Michelle Wolf’s routine ‘not in the spirit’ of our mission Trump to meet with crew of deadly Southwest Airlines flight MORE wants to step up efforts to protect Republican control of the House in hopes of avoiding an impeachment debate and congressional investigations if Democrats seize the chamber, according to GOP sources.

“It is super important to the White House and really the whole White House is very focused on it,” said a source familiar with strategy talks about protecting the House majority.

“The president is expected to dial up efforts in this regard during and after the August recess,” the source added.


While Democratic leaders in the House are playing any talk of impeachment very carefully, the idea of impeaching Trump has strong support within the party’s liberal base.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who raised $6.7 million in the first quarter for a Senate bid, goosed his fundraising last month by pledging to vote for impeachment. And Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersMaxine Waters: Republicans are scared that Trump will ‘take them down’ Trump: ‘Unreal’ enthusiasm, knowledge and love at rally Trump: If Dems win in 2018 midterms, they’ll impeach me MORE (D-Calif.) said over the weekend that 70 percent of Democrats want to impeach the president.

Those comments have grabbed Trump’s attention, and led him to see protecting the House as vitally important.

Trump told a rally of supporters in Michigan over the weekend that the looming threat of impeachment is a driving reason to protect the House.

“We have to keep the House because if we listen to Maxine Waters, she’s going around saying ‘We will impeach him,’ ” Trump said Saturday.

Democrats would need to gain 23 seats to win back the House majority, a number that seems within range. The Cook Political Report categorizes eight GOP held seats as likely or leaning toward Democrats, and 22 more as toss-ups.

Another party strategist said the order from the president to the Republican National Committee (RNC) has been clear: Protect the House at all costs.

“It’s clear the message has been, ‘We don’t want to want to have to fool with impeachment proceedings with the final two years of his first term, you better do something,” the strategist said, requesting anonymity to discuss party deliberations.

The RNC surprised Senate Republicans recently when it announced that protecting the House would be it’s top priority, putting less emphasis on the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP more confident about W. Va. Senate as Blankenship fades Dem senator: Legislation to protect Mueller would get 60 votes Trump dismissed warnings from GOP leaders that party could lose House: report MORE’s (R-Ky.) goal of protecting and expanding the Senate GOP majority.

“Our No. 1 priority is keeping the House. We have to win the House,” RNC political director Juston Johnson told the Associated Press.

It’s safe to say some Republicans will question a strategy that puts too much a priority on the House and not enough of one on the Senate.

Republicans have a narrow 51-49 edge in the Senate, but face a playing field that has Democrats defending 26 seats compared to just eight for Republicans. Many of the Democratic seats are also in states that Trump won by double-digits, which gives the Senate GOP real hope of increasing its majority even if the House majority flips.

McConnell warned Trump at a private dinner last month that he should focus more on the battle for control of the Senate, according to The New York Times. McConnell argued that the future of the Senate GOP majority depended largely on Trump.

At the same dinner, Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director predicted that House GOP majority is essentially doomed, according to The Times.

Other GOP strategists are urging Trump to spend his political capital where it can have the most impact — in states with vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents.

They see control of the House as a losing battle but acknowledge the president doesn’t agree with that analysis.

“There are a lot of operatives who are concerned that we’re chasing the impossible in terms of defending the House. Instead of ensuring you lock down one you may lose both,” said one GOP official who thinks the president’s time and fundraising ability is better used on Senate races.

This strategist argued that historical statistics combined with the wave of House Republican retirements makes keeping control of the lower chamber all but impossible.

Forty-seven House Republicans, including Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTop House conservative ‘has stepped down’ from chaplain search committee after remarks Anti-Catholic bias at play in replacing the chaplain of the House President of White House Correspondents’ Association defends journalism after Trump attacks MORE (R-Wis.), have announced their retirements since Trump came to office. While some of them have been replaced by GOP successors in special elections, many of the seats will be vulnerable to Democratic takeover in November.

Since 1966, when the president’s approval rating drops below 50 percent, his party hast lost two dozen or more seats in six out of the past seven midterm elections, according to The Cook Political Report. A Gallup weekly poll released Monday found Trump’s approval rating rising to its highest level in 11 months, but it still stood at an anemic 42 percent.

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said the costs will be high for Trump if Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D’Alesandro PelosiJournalists take a trip down the rabbit hole at CNN’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’-themed brunch Trump: ‘Unreal’ enthusiasm, knowledge and love at rally New Democratic leadership necessary for 2018 success MORE (D-Calif.) or another liberal Democrat becomes the next Speaker.

As a result, it’s understandable that Trump would want to fight hard to keep the House majority.

“They know they have to counteract that because if they lose the House the agenda stalls for two years and they’ll probably be facing impeachment charges every other week from how he looks to how he sneezes,” he added. “That is the White House’s No. 1 fear.”

Some Republicans think Trump could rally the party’s base by raising the specter of impeachment.

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist, said sounding the alarm on impeachment will likely be central to the White House’s strategy in some House races this fall — but not all of them.

“That will be part of it, but emphasizing how Pelosi and Co. would over turn his policies might resonate more than a hypothetical that Democratic leadership is trying to tamp down,” said Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman. 

“How [Democrats] would raise taxes, push government control of healthcare and more regulation may be a better argument to voters who might not be massive Trump fans but like his policies,” he said.

Scott Wong contributed.

Blankenship releases ad calling McConnell ‘cocaine Mitch’

West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship (R) released a new ad on Monday in which he labels Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellImpeachment looms large in White House midterm plans Blankenship releases ad calling McConnell ‘cocaine Mitch’ Trump calls for congressional term limits MORE (R-Ky.) as “cocaine Mitch.”

“One of my goals as U.S. senator will be to ditch cocaine Mitch. When you voting for me, you’re voting for the sake of the kids,” Blankenship says at the conclusion of the campaign spot.

The ex-coal CEO has previously lobbed attacks at McConnell. The latest ad provides no context for the moniker. 


Politico reported that Blankenship may be referring to a 2014 report in the left-leaning Nation magazine that drugs were once found on a shipping vessel owned by McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoBlankenship releases ad calling McConnell ‘cocaine Mitch’ Gender and race shouldn’t define your politics McConnell hits back at ‘ridiculous’ Chinaperson remark MORE.

The Hill has reached out to McConnell’s office for comment.

Blankenship previously attacked McConnell and Chao, saying last week that the Senate majority leader faces conflicts of interest because his father-in-law is a “wealthy Chinaperson.”

McConnell, who has said he doesn’t want Blakenship to win the West Virginia GOP primary, called the remarks “ridiculous.”

Blankenship, who was released from prison less than a year ago, is battling Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsBlankenship releases ad calling McConnell ‘cocaine Mitch’ National GOP pours in money to stop Blankenship in West Virginia GOP more confident about W. Va. Senate as Blankenship fades MORE (W.Va.) and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for the GOP nomination on May 8. The winner will face Democratic Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinBlankenship releases ad calling McConnell ‘cocaine Mitch’ Democrats should not expect a blue wave in mid-term elections National GOP pours in money to stop Blankenship in West Virginia MORE (W.Va.).

A spate of recent polling shows Blankenship fading into third place in the primary race, after an outside group with ties to the national GOP spent heavily to sink his candidacy.

How to fix the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Keep it ‘boring,’ journalists say

Michelle Wolf is pictured. | Getty Images

A move to shift the focus of the White house Correspondents’ Dinner comes amid a wave of criticism over the weekend of a scathing monologue by comedian Michelle Wolf. | Cheriss May/Getty Images

Past and future White House Correspondents’ Association officials, as well as media analysts, have a remedy for the recent string of headaches caused by the organization’s annual glitzy gala: Turn up the tedium.

The association is already looking ahead to reaching out to its membership to field ideas about shifting the focus of the event, its incoming president, Olivier Knox, told POLITICO on Monday. It’s a move that comes amid a wave of criticism for the latest iteration of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend, including a scathing monologue by comedian Michelle Wolf.

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Knox, elected to succeed Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev as the group’s president for the 2018-19 year, confirmed that he intends to touch base with the association’s members for input on a range of things, including the dinner, while acknowledging a desire to put a greater emphasis for the event back on the news media.

“I have said for years that I hoped the dinner would be ‘boring’ — shifting the center of gravity from the President, or the comic, or (Lord help us) the celebrities in the audience, to reporters,” he said in an email.

The event, often maligned by critics for bringing journalists together with those in power whom they seek to cover, gained an added level of controversy last year after President Donald Trump broke with decades of precedent by announcing plans to skip the event. After Wolf delivered a stinging rebuke of the president on Saturday, with no traditional retort from the absent Trump, many questioned whether it should go on as currently constituted.

But if efforts to reorient the dinner are to prove fruitful, several of the association’s past presidents told POLITICO in interviews on Monday, the group should consider doubling down on its journalism roots and dialing down the glamour.

“I do think that people involved in the association — not everybody, but a lot of us — have felt like the glitz has overshadowed things,” said Caren Bohan, a current Reuters editor and the group’s president for the 2011-12 year.

Bohan, who oversaw the 2012 dinner headlined by comedian Jimmy Kimmel, said she felt the service component “often did get lost in the celebrity aspect of the dinner.” But she declined to call for the association to remove the traditional stand-up routine by a comedian from the yearly schedule, as some have suggested.

“The format of the dinner should be something that the membership and the board talks about over the coming months,” she said in a phone interview. “All traditions can benefit from a discussion about whether something different needs to be done.”

The scorching and controversial routine by Wolf, a “Daily Show” contributor, united some members of the press corps with Trump in criticizing her performance, while others have pushed back against the outcry over the comedian’s jokes. The dustup prompted several prominent media critics to call for the event to be pared down or eliminated altogether.

“It may be time to give the jokes a rest,” Bob Deans, another former president of the correspondents organization, said in an email on Monday. “Find some other kind of entertainment.”

Ed Chen, who served as president of the group in 2009-10 and now works for the Natural Resources Defense Council, highlighted several paths forward for the event, including removing the comedy routine or eliminating the dinner altogether. But he also floated smaller changes that he argued would chip away at criticism of the event that paints the news media as elite or out of touch.

“If we have to have a dinner, go to business attire,” said Chen, taking aim at the event’s black-tie tradition. “It’s pretentious for a bunch of ink-stained wretches to dress up in black tie, looking like penguins.”

Chen said reducing the number of celebrities and advertisers invited to the dinner, and increasing the number of local and international media members, could also serve to buttress its underlying theme — the celebration of the First Amendment.

“I think one things to kind of get back to the roots of this thing as a journalism event” he said, “is to sell more tickets to more smaller outlets and individual reporters, freelancers.”

Asked whether the association was considering such measures — removing the comedy routine, including more local journalists and bolstering the service aspect of the evening — the incoming president, Knox, said those were “certainly ideas I’ve heard from inside and outside the WHCA.” But he declined to weigh in on what future steps the organization might take, saying he didn’t “want to get ahead of my outreach to WHCA members.” (Talev did not respond to a request for comment.)

Bohan, of Reuters, said she didn’t think an increased focus on the service component of the dinner would it more “boring,” while acknowledging that it would likely attract a different crowd.

“I can see where somebody in the entertainment business might not be as interested as I am in that part of the dinner,” she said, “but that’s the part that interests me the most, and that is the part that is most important to me.”

But Peter Vernon, a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review, argued that the association’s hallmark dinner could stand to have a bit more monotony.

“If it’s a boring and more toned-down affair, that’s probably a good thing right now,” Vernon told POLITICO on Monday, citing the current polarized political climate.

Vernon maintained that a greater emphasis on journalism basics could also serve to insulate the association from criticisms about a comedian’s controversial routine.

“If you can bring journalists from Washington and from local news organizations, that’s great,” he said. “It’s going to be a much more boring event, one that will probably not get the attention that having a comedian up there, you know, sharply criticizing the administration would.”

Blankenship slams ‘Cocaine Mitch’ in anti-McConnell ad

MORGANTOWN, WV - MARCH 01: Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Don Blankenship speaks at a town hall meeting at West Virginia University on March 1, 2018 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Blankenship is the former chief executive of the Massey Energy Company where an explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine killed 29 men in 2010. Blankenship, a controversial candidate in central Appalachia coal country, served a one-year sentence for conspiracy to violate mine safety laws and has continued to blame the government for the accident despite investigators findings. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Coal baron Don Blankenship has gone after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in startlingly personal ways. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

West Virginia Senate hopeful Don Blankenship is intensifying his offensive against Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, calling him “Cocaine Mitch” in a new TV ad released just over a week until the Republican primary.

“One of my goals as U.S. Senator will be to ditch Cocaine Mitch,” Blankenship says toward the end of the spot, which comes as polls show the coal baron falling behind his more mainstream opponents.

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Blankenship, who spent a year in prison following the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers, offers no context for the jab. But he may be referring to a 2014 report in the liberal Nation magazine that drugs were once found aboard a shipping vessel owned by the family of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Blankenship has gone after McConnell in startlingly personal ways. During a recent interview with POLITICO, Blankenship said McConnell “has a lot of connections in China,” and that Chao is “from China, so we have to be really concerned that we are in truth” putting America’s interests first.

A McConnell representative did not respond to a request for comment.

With the May 8 primary fast approaching, Blankenship has launched a slash-and-burn campaign targeting the Senate GOP leader. Blankenship’s offensive comes as polls show him falling behind GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in the primary.

McConnell’s political operation has moved aggressively to block Blankenship’s path. Operatives close to the majority leader, convinced that Blankenship would lose to Democrat Joe Manchin in the November general election, have launched a super PAC that has spent around $1.3 million on TV ads attacking the coal baron.

One ad from Mountain Families PAC describes Blankenship as a “convicted criminal,” who lived a lavish lifestyle while ignoring mine safety laws.

“Don Blankenship was about the money,” the spot concludes. “West Virginia families paid the price.”

Chatty Pompeo strikes early contrast with reclusive Tillerson

Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of state, is leaning hard into the side of the job his predecessor seemed to hate the most: public relations.

Within hours of being confirmed last week, Pompeo took along several journalists on a trip to Europe and the Middle East, answering their questions in public and private, and appearing Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week.” He’s planning a town hall meeting with State Department staff soon. And he may even start tweeting.

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The moves are in many ways a return to tradition for a secretary of state, a high-profile position where words are the most powerful tool. But they stand in marked contrast to the man Pompeo replaced, Rex Tillerson, whose early lack of visibility caused lingering damage to his reputation inside the Trump administration and beyond.

“It signals that, unlike Tillerson, Pompeo recognizes some of the basic things he needs to do to make the State Department relevant,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama-era State official now with the Center for a New American Security. “By itself it won’t make Pompeo an effective secretary of state. But not doing these things really hurt Tillerson.”

On Tuesday afternoon, his first full day in Foggy Bottom itself, Pompeo will deliver a speech introducing himself to the department. Staffers and journalists won’t be the only ones listening; foreign diplomats will also parse Pompeo’s words carefully.

Tillerson, too, gave a well-received speech his first full day on the job. But for months afterward, he almost seemed to have taken a vow of silence.

He refused to engage reporters, didn’t hold a town hall until three months in and had no social media presence. U.S. diplomats soon found themselves aimless, lacking guidance from Tillerson and his small coterie of advisers. Veteran NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell took to loudly asking questions of a silent Tillerson during his public appearances, videos of which went viral. The department’s daily press briefing, a decades-old tradition, was put on ice for nearly two months. Under pressure, Tillerson brought it back, but in a scaled back format. Headlines asked: “Where’s Rex?”

Tillerson puzzled a foreign policy establishment used to secretaries of state — including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry — who sought, rather than shunned, public attention. Many State Department staffers came to see Tillerson as isolated and aloof. And foreign leaders who concluded he was ineffectual and out of the loop engaged directly with the White House instead.

Tillerson greatly increased his visibility in the second half of his 14-month tenure, but the damage was done. Trump fired Tillerson in mid-March.

The difference between Tillerson and Pompeo might be explained, in part, by their respective backgrounds: Tillerson had previously been a taciturn CEO of ExxonMobil, Pompeo a pugnacious congressman from Kansas.

“His background as a congressman is a great asset in his current position,” said Brett Schaefer, a foreign policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “He has a great deal of experience in interacting with a broad number of people and doing so in a way that is designed to listen to their concerns and respond to them.”

Pompeo has also pledged to stay in close touch with his former colleagues in Congress. Tillerson drew criticism for being slow to respond to lawmakers’ requests.

And while Tillerson showed no visible interest in social media, a person familiar with Pompeo’s situation said he is considering using Twitter.

David Wade, a former chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, argued that a secretary of state’s public words matter well beyond the Washington Beltway. “Externally, you’re in a race to define the American narrative against those like Russia and China which will fill in their own narrative if you’re absent,” he said.

Calling Tillerson “an abysmal failure at communications both internally and externally,” Wade said Pompeo “can be a good communicator, and as a politician he’s more talented than his predecessor.” But, he added, “all the public diplomacy in the world can’t get him out from under the weight of Trump’s tweets and slurs about people from the Middle East to Africa.”

The timing of Pompeo’s Thursday confirmation vote allowed him to attend a long-scheduled meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels the next day, winning him early plaudits from others in the military alliance.

“He actually jumped on a plane just after he was sworn in and he was able to address the North Atlantic Council, the foreign ministers of NATO, just 12 hours and 34 minutes after his confirmation,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said with admiration.

Pompeo left Washington with six journalists on his plane. On his first major overseas trip, Tillerson brought just one reporter, from the conservative Independent Journal Review.

As he continued from Brussels to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan over the weekend, Pompeo picked up two more reporters. He spoke to the reporters on the plane and also took questions during press conferences on the ground.

Tillerson, by contrast, generally avoided even the reporters who — having been denied seats on his official plane — chased him around the world on commercial flights.

Shortly after he took office, Tillerson took a quick trip to Bonn, Germany, for a meeting of G-20 foreign ministers. At an appearance on the sidelines with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, reporters were escorted out of the room before Tillerson gave remarks. Even Lavrov was puzzled: “Why did they shush them out?” he asked.

“I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it,” Tillerson would later tell the IJR reporter, who traveled with him to Asia a month later.

During his 15 months as CIA director, Pompeo forged a much closer relationship with Trump than Tillerson. He is believed to have a much better sense of where the president stands, and his own, often-hawkish views appear more in line with Trump’s thinking. Pompeo has also been vocal about wanting to improve morale at the State Department, where many diplomats have been distressed over Trump’s attempts to slash their budget and Tillerson’s unwillingness to listen to their expertise.

In a press conference in Brussels, Pompeo pointed out that he’d met with U.S. diplomats who work in the Belgian capital and that he was committed to making his department more relevant.

The diplomats, he said, “may have been demoralized, but they seemed in good spirits. They are hopeful that the State Department will get its swagger back.”