Indiana’s freshman senator steps up to the impeachment mics

Sen. Mike Braun quickly vaulted from a self-described “no name” to one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent and prolific defenders during the Senate’s impeachment trial. And the GOP freshman from Indiana gives all the credit to Chuck Schumer.

The Senate minority leader, notorious for his infatuation with the press, orchestrated a Democratic media blitz during the three week-long trial, leading daily press conferences often multiple times a day.

At the start of the proceedings, Braun noticed Schumer was beating him and other Republicans to the cameras during the few short breaks each day, getting the first chance to engage with reporters and shape that day’s impeachment narrative.

“I move a lot faster than Chuck Schumer, I can tell you that,” the 65-year-old Braun said in an interview in his office Wednesday, just hours before he and most other Senate Republicans would vote to acquit Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

“I told [Sen. John] Barrasso, ‘We’re going to have to be a little quicker, we’re getting outmaneuvered ... So I ended up keeping an eye on Chuck and got down there first those last several days.”

And it worked. Braun morphed into a talking point tour du force, clocking dozens of appearances on every cable news channel and in both local and major newspapers over the last several weeks.

Just over a year into his term, Braun has become a prominent GOP voice on impeachment, joking that he spends more time on TV than probably any Republican senator beside Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s closest allies.

But the freshman senator said it was a natural move to enter “the lion’s den” of CNN and MSNBC after a brutal, nationalized primary in 2018 where he eventually pulled off an upset against two sitting GOP congressmen after initially polling at 1 percent with Hoosier voters. Plus, he said, there was little choice if Republicans wanted to get their message out at a time when most of their members would rather remain out of the spotlight: “Generally, most people don’t want to do it.”

For a businessman turned unlikely senator who spent most of his first year lying low, the sudden spotlight wasn’t gaffe free.

For example, Braun went further than many in his own party by asserting during a press conference that Trump didn’t ask Ukraine to investigate the Bidens or withhold foreign aid as part of the pressure campaign, despite evidence to the contrary.

“I'm not saying it's okay. I'm not saying it's appropriate. I'm saying it didn't happen,” Braun said at the time. His answer was panned on Twitter but Braun quickly embraced the criticism, tweeting out the clip from his official account.

Whereas other Republican senators at times struggled to answer if they thought Trump’s request for a “favor” on the call with the Ukrainian president was appropriate, Braun leaned in, unabashedly defending the president at every opportunity.

When a press conference featuring several other prominent Republican was abruptly canceled last week as the GOP struggled to respond to the latest John Bolton revelations, Braun was undeterred, showing up with Barrasso to face the barrage of questions from reporters.

“Well I think there, the official story would be ‘conflicts,’” Braun explained when asked why several of the other GOP senators bowed out of the press conference. “I’m guessing the unofficial story could have been maybe that was a topic that was hot.”

Braun is part of a chatty freshman class who frequently hold court with reporters, including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). The public posture is a break in a chamber defined by its long-standing traditions and often unspoken seniority rules, including that junior members are more to be seen and not heard when they first arrive.

“I wanted to sit back and watch and learn,” Barrasso said of his experience when he first came to the Senate in 2007.

But Barrasso, now the chamber’s No. 3 Republican and a frequent partner during Braun’s many media appearances throughout the trial, said the Senate has evolved in many ways, including this, and Braun has embraced the opportunity.

“When they take breaks in the trial, some people want to go and grab a candy bar or sit down and make a phone call,” Barrasso said in an interview. “And he wanted to talk about what was happening so it showed a real level of commitment and energy.”

And talk he did. Within a span of minutes, Braun could often be found on the second floor chatting with reporters penned in just outside the chamber before hustling down to the basement to make a quick appearance at a bank of microphones, and then trekking to another camera setup in one of the Senate office buildings before circling back to the chamber in time for the trial to restart.

Even Trump has noticed Braun’s nonstop media blitz, praising him for being “a big fixture on television and doing a great job” during a signing ceremony for the new North American trade agreement last week.

Democrats, too, have paid attention to Braun as one of the few Republicans willing to go on air and defend Trump and the party amid the upheaval of impeachment.

“There’s a senator from Indiana, Braun or Brown, I’m not sure, who said on ‘Meet the Press,’ we want to get rid of this, we want to get impeachment done, so we can get to the people’s business,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters on Tuesday.

“I haven’t talked to him,” Hoyer said, eager to dispute Braun’s remarks about the Senate getting back to legislation. “But they have 275 bipartisan bills in their possession.”

That argument, that the Senate has prioritized judges over legislation, is a salient point for Braun, who has an appetite for the kind of big, bold compromises that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not inclined to seek.

At times, Braun sounds more like a Blue Dog Democrat — an ideology that has long reigned supreme in southern Indiana, where he’s from — with the kind of old-school fiscal conservatism mixed with the real-talk of a Harvard MBA graduate.

And Braun readily acknowledges that Democrats have outmaneuvered Republicans on issues like health care and climate, in a way that senators who’ve served for decades don’t admit.

He calls Republicans “born-again believers of pre-existing conditions” and warns that the GOP will be “on the wrong side” of the discussion if they don’t acknowledge the effects of greenhouse gases on climate change.

That’s part of the reason he stepped up to the microphones, he said: To prevent it from happening with impeachment, too. And if he gets the chance, Braun said he tries to squeeze in a little policy talk at the end of each appearance.

“To me, it’s a big microphone here, and I’m going to use it,” Braun said. “I wasn’t afraid to use it on getting our point of view out on impeachment.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Democrats seek to undermine Trump acquittal

President Donald Trump hasn’t been acquitted in the Senate trial yet, but Democratic leaders are already testing out their post-impeachment spin.

"He will not be acquitted," Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared to reporters during her weekly press conference on Thursday.

“You cannot be acquitted if you don’t have a trial. You don’t have a trial if you don’t have witnesses and documentation and all of that,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) added. “Does the president know right from wrong? I don't think so."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivered a similar refrain at his press conference across the Capitol on Thursday.

A trial “without the evidence, without witnesses and documents would render the president’s acquittal meaningless,” Schumer said as the Senate prepares to begin what could be its second-to-last day of proceedings.

The Senate’s vote to acquit Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, he argued, would have a “giant asterisk next to it, because the trial was so rigged in his favor.”

The argument — that Trump cannot be truly exonerated without a fair trial in the Senate — is clearly an attempt to undermine the White House’s victory lap after the president is acquitted, possibly as soon as Friday.

Schumer has been warning for weeks about the consequences of Republicans voting to acquit Trump through a "sham trial" without additional witnesses. But the closer the Senate gets to that possibility, the more Democrats have adopted that message and the sharper it gets.

While Democrats are still fighting to call more witnesses -- an argument a small number of Republicans are open to -- it’s widely expected by both sides that Trump will be acquitted given that 67 senators would have to vote to convict the president.

The forceful comments by Pelosi and Schumer on Thursday represent a clearer, sharper version of what Democrats have been arguing all week.

“Any conclusion that doesn’t allow witnesses and documents is going to make the president’s acquittal — if it should happen — worth very, very little. Zero,” Schumer told a swarm of reporters on Wednesday after the Senate’s first day of its question-and-answer session.

“You can’t convince the American people it was an acquittal if you don’t have witnesses and documents,” he said.

Democrats are already seizing on what they see as an attempt by Republicans to speed through a trial — that includes the increasing likelihood that a vote for acquittal could happen in the dead of night Friday after senators vote on whether to call additional witnesses.

For weeks, Democrats have been demanding Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agree to allow additional witnesses and documents in the trial. The Democrats’ push gained new life earlier this week after claims surfaced from former national security adviser John Bolton that Trump told him he would continue withholding almost $400 million in aid until Ukraine helped investigate the president’s Democratic rivals.

The former national security adviser’s claims, detailed in an unpublished manuscript reported by the New York Times, rocked the Capitol on Monday as Republicans struggled to respond to questions about why Bolton shouldn’t testify.

The news also intensified pressure on the handful of moderate Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who are being closely watched as they debate whether to side with Democrats and support a proposal to allow more witnesses to be called.

But the likelihood of Bolton or other witnesses being summoned to the Capitol appeared to fade over the next four days. By Thursday, GOP leaders signaled confidence they could defeat Democratic procedural motions on witnesses and other evidence.

Asked Thursday morning if he feels confident about the witness vote, McConnell told reporters: “I always do.”

Some of the most closely-watched moderate Republicans — Collins and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — appeared Wednesday dissatisfied, at times, by the answers to their questions on the floor.

“We have people who are very comfortable with their positions, they think they've heard enough and are ready to move forward with a vote,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

“But we've still got some folks who are, like I said, assessing it and I think until this process is complete -- the question and answer sessions are through -- are probably going to keep their powder dry and that's fine."

Senators will begin another eight-hour round of questioning at 1 p.m. on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Schumer and other top Democrats have stepped up their attacks on White House lawyers for withholding key facts and refusing to fully answer questions about Trump’s conduct and motivations — another aspect of the trial they argue has been unfair to Democrats.

Schumer pointed to one question, in particular, when the White House counsel was asked to name one witness or one document to which House managers have been allowed access.

“And Mr. Philbin filibustered because he had no answer,” Schumer said, referring to deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin.

Marianne LeVine and John Bresnahan contributed to this story.

Posted in Uncategorized

Dems soften tone after Nadler dust-up

As Rep. Zoe Lofgren approached the Senate lectern late Thursday with her trial presentation in hand, she paused and did something surprising.

“Thank you so much for the attention that you have given to our presentation throughout this day,” the House impeachment manager said to the visibly weary group as they were entering the ninth hour of the trial that day. “It’s a long day ... It’s not easy but you’re paying attention and the country and the managers thank you for that.”

Lofgren’s appreciative tone was in stark contrast to early Wednesday morning when Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) lectured senators, telling them they would be taking a “treacherous vote” and engaging in a “coverup” if they chose not to allow more witnesses.

Nadler’s barbed remarks — while commonplace in the House — earned a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts and gasps and angry glares from some GOP senators.

The seven House Democrats tasked with prosecuting President Donald Trump in the Senate have noticeably shifted their demeanor over the last three days, carefully adopting a more deferential — and at times, outright apologetic — tone in their final attempt to convince even a single Republican of the breadth and weight of their case against the president.

GOP senators say they have noticed Democrats’ stylistic change, with the impeachment managers deploying more personal appeals to the 100 jurors who will decide Trump’s fate. Several Republicans praised the performance of Democrats like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — who delivered an impassioned closing speech on Thursday night — even as they quickly dispelled the substance of his case.

“They started off very aggressive and without the kind of decorum we expect in the Senate,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said in an interview Friday, just before Democrats began the third, and final day, of their opening arguments.

“They’ve figured out they sort of overplayed their hand ... They’ve just been way more sort of respectful, serious, less accusatory in some ways,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

“Still, the tone’s harsh, it’s impeachment. They use words like cheat, corrupt and things like that. But in terms of the way they’re approaching the body, it’s different,” Thune added.

Some of the changes are more subtle, like the impeachment managers straying from prepared remarks to commend senators for their patience and attention.

Then there’s the more blatant attempts to lighten the mood, like New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries cracking a timely joke on baseball legend Derek Jeter’s entry into the Hall of Fame. Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) followed up to Jeffries’ with a retort of his own on Friday: “I can only conclude this is only a New York Yankees problem,” he quipped.

Democrats also leaned on some self-deprecating humor during the dozens of hours of dense arguments, like Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) ad-libbing when an audio clip failed to load during her presentation.

Schiff used part of his presentation on Wednesday to specifically acknowledge the Senate’s demanding role in the trial.

“We have adrenaline going through our veins, and for those who are required to sit and listen, it is a much more difficult task,” Schiff said Wednesday, the morning after Nadler’s late-night comments that irked senators, especially Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “And, of course, we know our positions. You have the added difficulty of having to weigh the facts and the law.”

But the strategy shift had several Republican senators doing something rare — particularly in the hyper-partisan environment that has clouded Capitol Hill during impeachment — in that they were willingly complimenting the impeachment managers on Friday as Democrats prepared to wrap up their opening arguments.

“I think they’ve done a good job of presenting their case,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the potential key swing votes. “As the House managers have said, they’ve offered a mountain of overwhelming evidence so we have a lot to consider.”

Some senators chalked up the tonal switch to a change in scenery: House lawmakers, they said, were simply adjusting to the more high-minded ways of their own chamber and the weight of the task at hand.

“I’m sure that they were a little bit overwhelmed, a little bit intimidated, you know just the circumstances of the event, talking literally to the entire world,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.). “I think they’ve kind of settled down a little bit.”

The kudos were a sharp contrast from earlier this week, when Republicans were livid after Nadler’s comments and even some Senate Democrats were publicly asking for a reset between the two sides.

Multiple senators said although Nadler’s remarks were the most glaring example, other aspects of Democrats opening presentation on Tuesday also rankled them, including Schiff’s tone at times. The California Democrat occasionally used what came across as sarcasm, senators said.

“I think part of the problem with the impeachment managers is they think this impeachment trial is about them. And hence we got a lot of repetition because everybody’s got their 15 minutes of fame,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

And while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) complimented the managers on Friday for “how they’ve conducted themselves,” and was even seen earlier this week shaking Schiff’s hand, he was also quick to ding the California Democrat’s closing speech the night before.

"He told me that I have to get rid of this president now because I can't trust him to do what's best for this country because he'll only do what's best for Donald Trump. That decision needs to be made by the voters," Graham said.

"The idea that a politician says he can't serve anymore because he's been so self centered -- I find that to ring hollow."

Many GOP senators, however, argued that the tone of the Democrats’ presentations hardly matters if the seven impeachment managers continue to repeat the facts of their case over and over. Democrats plan to use all 24 hours of their allotted time on the floor, which senators of both parties say has resulted in overlapping and repeated arguments.

And it certainly doesn’t change their positions on the substance of the case, of which the vast majority of Senate Republicans have already rejected.

“We’re trying to get to the facts of the case and when we hear the same thing over and over and over again, it’s not the tone that matters at that point,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “It’s that you’re wasting my time.”

Even some Democratic senators acknowledged that the substance of the trial was becoming repetitive and plodding as the arguments stretched into their third day.

“It’s getting a little tedious, but they’ve done it in the right way,” Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), a former prosecutor, said of the Democrats’ case so far, though he overall praised the effort. “So far, it’s been pretty compelling.”

Burgess Everett, Marianne LeVine and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

Posted in Uncategorized