The tentacles of the Democratic impeachment investigation are extending far beyond the arms of President Donald Trump.
The vice president’s office, acting chief of staff’s office, State Department, Energy Department, Office of Management and Budget and Justice Department are among the government entities quickly finding themselves ensnared in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, joining a huge squad of White House lawyers, Cabinet officials and national security staffers — many of them detailed from the Pentagon, CIA and elsewhere in the intel community — potentially tainted by the widening investigation.
The impeachment fight under Trump is quickly surpassing the reach of the presidential impeachment battles under Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, swallowing even larger swaths of the federal government. The whistleblower complaint and the resulting investigative sprawl are making the probe harder for Trump and his White House to stamp out, with Democrats gaining new avenues to uncover damaging details that contradict Trump.
And a president who loves to be in control is increasingly finding himself out of it, left to lob angry tweets from the White House residence or the Oval Office as he and a handful of emissaries — such as personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — function as their own uncoordinated rapid-response operation.
“Every time Rudy Giuliani says something on TV, he lays out a new path for the Democrats to follow,” said Chris Lu, former deputy chief counsel for the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a former top aide to President Barack Obama.
For Trump and his administration, the widening investigation risks freezing up principals in key agencies, slowing down progress on any remaining policy initiatives and triggering caution among political players who might have been in a position to advocate for him throughout 2020.
For Democrats, the widening avenues of inquiry risk broadening their investigation so much that it leaves voters too confused and exhausted to follow along.
“The Democrats need to make sure they have a clear message regarding the overall theme of the impeachment proceedings,” said Paul Light, a New York University professor of public service who is an expert on congressional investigations.
“The White House has figured out that chaos is the president’s friend along with misinformation, confusion and allegations about this and that. As long as they keep the public uncertain about what happened and why it matters, they are advantaged,” Light said.
The speed at which the Democratic lawmakers are now moving — and public opinion is shifting — has left the White House on the defensive and struggling to catch up. It’s unclear if the administration’s playbook from the past nine months of stonewalling Democratic congressional investigations will work in this particular instance.
The White House is expected to send a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday, saying it will decline to hand over any documents until after the House holds a formal impeachment vote.
Some Trump allies believe a war room could serve as a nerve center to coordinate messaging across its administration while protecting Trump from what might be released from an agency, or a seemingly obscure official.
White House staffers remain divided on the necessity of such a centralized operation inside the West Wing to coordinate the political and press response to the impeachment inquiry. No one can decide who should run it, or how it should be structured, and the president continues to prefer to fight by leaning on his own public comments and Twitter feed.
One faction in the White House and at the Justice Department believes assembling a separate operation at this point is an overreaction, given the contents of the Ukrainian call summary transcript and the legal staff’s existing expertise in oversight inquiries, said one close White House adviser.
Instead, the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee have picked up the slack, putting forth a new advertisement this week that calls the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry a “coup” that liberals wanted to launch ever since Trump was elected.
The RNC recently formed a 12-person impeachment task force to tackle the issue. Altogether, the Trump campaign and RNC plan to spend $10 million on various ad buys to bolster the president and bash the Democrats.
The impeachment proceedings are far different from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, according to some Democrats, because the information and revelations are coming out so quickly, so publicly, and in revelatory pieces, with Pelosi as the Democratic narrator. Mueller released his findings in one shot in a roughly 400-page report and spoke publicly only twice about his findings and without much bravado.
By contrast, the impeachment inquiry is happening in real time with new leads and information emerging daily from across the administration — including a possible second whistleblower, another official over whom Trump has no control.
Lu said the investigations could quickly move into new areas such as uncovering any instructions the Trump administration gave American embassies, diplomatic cables that would have gone back-and-forth on U.S.-Ukraine relations, or any military sales out of the Pentagon.
“They have also essentially opened up the transcripts of every possible call with a foreign leader,” Lu added, remarking on the precedent the White House set by releasing the summary of the call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. During that call, Trump asked the president to investigate the son of his political rival Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election.
With everything moving so quickly, the White House is having a much harder time locking down information or stopping midlevel officials from testifying.
And Trump’s team has veered from one talking point to the next by trying to cast the Democrats’ inquiry as overtly partisan, or suggesting the White House is primarily focused on policy — even as the president’s Twitter feed and public comments suggest a growing obsession with the impeachment inquiry.
Trump has tried to discredit the whistleblower, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and the media by trying to paint the proceedings as a long-standing conspiracy — dating to the 2016 election — to upend his presidency.
White House officials stress the president did nothing wrong, and that his call with the Ukrainian leader on July 25 was “appropriate.”
“If you look at the whistleblower’s complaint, it’s totally inaccurate because the conversation that I had was absolutely perfect. And most people that have read it say the same thing,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “The whistleblower never saw the — saw the conversation. He got his information, I guess, second or thirdhand. He wrote something that was total fiction. And now, when people see that, they’re not happy.”