Former ambassadors, top foreign policy aides and once-loyal campaign donors are disregarding orders from the White House to ignore congressional subpoenas, trudging up to Capitol Hill for marathon sessions of closed-door testimony about President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for political help.
Former Trump aides are comparing each other to lethal weapons, and shadowy associates who did business for Trump’s personal lawyer are being indicted on campaign finance charges.
To what degree this drumbeat of dissension and disorder shapes the discussion at the debate is one of the big questions facing the 12 candidates who will be onstage. This is the first debate since Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared the formal beginning of an impeachment inquiry last month.
It’s a lot of drama to compete with — it was revealed Monday night that John Bolton, the former national security adviser, compared Rudy Giuliani to a “hand grenade,” after all — especially when the point of Tuesday’s debate is to compete with one another for the Democratic nomination.
Add to the mix the fact that one candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, was the target of the president’s efforts to press a foreign power for political dirt, and will be under pressure to respond to the inquiry on Tuesday night.
Even if the political chaos surrounding Trump looms over the program, the candidates should do their best to ignore it, according to some political strategists in both parties.
“The best thing the candidates could do is to compartmentalize it,” said Brian Fallon, who was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “There’s very little opportunity for separation among the candidates, based on how they talk about Trump.”
Brendan Buck, a past adviser to former Speaker Paul Ryan, said a debate where everyone agrees that Trump deserves to be impeached is a snooze and a wasted opportunity.
“Other than Biden having his opportunity to say his piece, they’re generally better off leaving this debate to Nancy Pelosi,” Buck said. The impeachment probe, he said, “isn’t terribly tangible to people’s lives.”
Nor is it how most Americans would like to see Trump leave office. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 58% of Americans think Trump’s fate should be decided by voters next November, compared to 37% who think it should be decided by the impeachment process. (Even so, 52% of respondents in that poll approved of the decision to begin the impeachment inquiry.)
The focus on impeachment may make it difficult for lower-polling candidates like Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, or Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey to break through. But Democrats said that overall, the inquiry would be a huge gift to whoever emerged as the party’s nominee.
“It’s creating a permanent black cloud that will ultimately help the Democratic nominee,” Fallon said, pointing to the earned media coverage of impeachment as a way for Democrats to close the messaging gap with the Trump campaign, which is vastly outspending them online.
“It’s defining him in a way none of the individual campaigns could do during a primary,” Fallon said. “They should all be thanking their lucky stars.”
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