President Trump, partial to gold and marble elegance, never took a shine to rustic Camp David. So acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney pitched to him an unusual idea at the start of the House impeachment inquiry: Use the secluded mountainous presidential retreat to woo House Republicans.
Since then, Mulvaney and top White House officials have hosted weekend getaways for Republicans at the historic lodge, seeking to butter up Republicans before the big impeachment vote. The casual itinerary includes making s’mores over the campfire, going hiking, shooting clay pigeons and schmoozing with Trump officials, some of whom stay overnight with lawmakers.During dinners, Trump has called in to compliment members personally.
“I’ve worked with a number of Republican presidents over various administrations . . . and I’ve never, ever been invited to Camp David,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.). “It was amazing to go for a short weekend. So historic.”
The Camp David excursions are one prong of a broad White House charm offensive, meant to hold House and Senate Republicans in line through a House impeachment vote and a trial in the Senate that appears all but inevitable.Never shy to feud with his own party, Trump has for weeks refrained from full-throated attacks against Republicans who have been even remotely critical of the conduct now under scrutiny by the House: The president’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.
The White House has made sure that a small clutch of Republican lawmakers have accompanied Trump to a trio of recent sporting events, whether at the Ultimate Fighting Championship in New York, the World Series in Washington or at the football game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., between the University of Alabama and Louisiana State UniversityIn recent weeks, the White House has also invited a group of GOP senators every Thursday to have lunch with the president, where the mealtime conversation rarely centers on impeachment but inevitably veers toward it, according to participants.
Trump’s message to the senators echoes what he has said publicly against charges that he abused the powers of his office, and Republicans who’ve attended say they feel no overt pressure from the president to stay on his side.
“The president rightfully believes he has been targeted since the election before he was even sworn in,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who attended a White House-hosted lunch Nov. 14. “As a human being, he also talks about the toll it takes, it would take on any family.”
The systematic courting may prove to be one pivotal factor if Republican lawmakers continue to rally behind Trump, who is almost certain to become the third U.S. president in history to become impeached by the House in the coming weeks. The idea, at least for the Camp David getaways, is to make Republicans feel as if they are part of Trump’s family — and make it more difficult for them to vote in favor of impeaching him.
The administration-wide effort to court Republicans was described by 20 lawmakers, administration officials, congressional aides and others familiar with the endeavor.In all, Trump has met with or reached out personally to 100 GOP members of the House since the impeachment inquiry was launched, and 50 of the 53 Senate Republicans have attended a White House lunch — where chicken is often served — with the president. More than 40 House Republicans, from moderates to conservatives, have made the visit to Camp David at the invitation of Mulvaney and the legislative affairs team — who have invited groups of about 10 for overnight stays.
The wooing appears to be working, particularly the Camp David effort.Multiple lawmakers who have visited the retreat — nearly 90 miles from Washington — have described the trips as “surreal” and “incredible,” according to a half-dozen lawmakers and aides familiar with the outings. An invitation is now considered “the envy of the conference,” according to one member who attended.
“It’s an impressive effort to engage at the member level,” said the GOP lawmaker, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the coveted invites. “My colleagues have been blown away by it. And by the way, notice Republicans are united on impeachment.”
When Mulvaney first pitched the idea of turning Camp David into a weekend retreat for lawmakers, Trump was surprised, officials said. The acting chief of staff has told GOP attendees that the president didn’t see the allure, asking: “Who would want to go there?”
It’s clear plenty of House Republicans do. Lawmakers and their spouses are given a tour of the historic grounds once they arrive, attendees said. Many are in awe over the hot tub, golf course and, in particular, who had previously stayed there, as they flip through books containing names of foreign ministers, famous White House staffers and other dignitaries who have slept in the same beds, participants said.The grounds also include an arcade, a bowling alley and a shooting range.
Lawmakers are encouraged to go have fun. And since no phones are allowed on the premises, members have been letting loose — with one attendee likening it to an “adult playground.”Mulvaney and Eric Ueland, the White House’s chief legislative liaison, have at times broached the subject of impeachment — but more as a discussion of the process rather than a hard loyalty sell. The legislative affairs team also gives presentations about policy priorities like prescription drugs and trade.
Though not as elaborate, the Thursday lunches with Trump and GOP senators have a similarly open agenda that the president allows the lawmakers to largely dictate, according to attendees.
Topics vary widely, often on policy matters ranging from foreign affairs to trade to vaping to prescription drugs. The president and senators have also discussed his previous life as a businessman, his books and his first board game; Conan, the military canine who played a key role in the raid that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and parochial issues that Trump promises to fix, according to people who have attended the lunches.
Trump has regularly bragged to the senators about the power of his Twitter feed and his poll numbers.The president also finds time for a personal touch. In one recent lunch, he personally thanked Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) for his support, vaguely mentioning that he was one of seven, according to a person briefed on the encounter.
It was unclear to those in attendance what Trump was referring to, although Moran was recently listed as one of seven GOP senators in a Daily Caller story who had explicitly ruled out impeaching the president or removing him from office.Not much impeachment trial strategy is actually discussed, with most of the impeachment chatter from Trump focusing on the rough transcript of his July 25 call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky and his proclamations that he did nothing improper.
“He just said over and over, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong,’ ” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), describing one lunch.
In one lunch, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) asked Trump whether he would like to see a swift dismissal of a Senate trial, particularly if Republicans believe the Democrats’ case is fundamentally flawed, or whether he would like to see a lengthier proceeding that allows for more time to present his defense. Trump declined to take a position, deferring to the senators instead to determine that. The light and friendly touch from Trump is not an accident.
After Trump called Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) a “pompous ‘ass’ ” when the senator criticized his conduct on Ukraine, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), at an Oct. 21 meeting at the White House, urged the president to lay off attacks against Republicans.
A Trump adviser says the president so far is not seeking to attack or directly pressure wary senators. At a recent donor event at Trump International Hotel in Washington, Trump made sure to call out and compliment senators such as Tillis, Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whom Trump noted he “kind of” likes “but she really doesn’t like me.”Trump expressed confidence in a meeting last week with advisers that Romney would not vote to convict him in a Senate impeachment trial, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. Romney, who has taken up anti-vaping as a key cause in the Senate, was seated next to Trump Friday at a White House event on the issue.“I don’t think he’s needing any reinforcement by these lunches,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said.
Indeed, few if any Republicans have strayed from the party view that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine does not amount to impeachable conduct — before and after the days of damaging testimony from a cavalcade of witnesses in front of the House intelligence panel this month.
At the Nov. 9 football game in Alabama, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.) said he listened as Trump spoke — again — about impeachment, expressing surprise while chatting with lawmakers in a luxury box at Bryant-Denny Stadium that Democrats were even moving forward with proceedings.
Trump, again, implored the Alabama and Louisiana Republicans in attendance to read the memorandum of the call with Zelensky. He also stressed that he is pleased Republicans have been united behind him so far.“He had more impeachment on his mind,” Aderholt recalled, “than anything else.”