Introducing a new political attack line on House Democrats amid their ongoing impeachment inquiry, President Trump forcefully declared at a rally Thursday night on friendly turf in Louisiana, "We did nothing wrong -- and they're doing nothing."
Hours earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the president of "bribery" by allegedly "threatening to withhold military aid" in exchange for an "investigation into his political rival" -- signaling that Democrats were preparing to go all-in on impeachment, even as the Trump administration was touting its successes on unemployment and energy independence. The Washington Post had reported Democrats were retiring the "quid pro quo" language in exchange for "bribery" following an internal study showing the word "bribery" resonated more in battleground states.
Although the Louisiana rally ostensibly was an effort to oust the state's governor, a Democrat, in this weekend's election, Trump almost immediately turned his attention to the first public hearings in the impeachment inquiry earlier in the week, reading from an article from The Daily Wire's Ryan Saavedra.
Saavedra reported that a top Ukrainian official said Thursday that U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland "did not link financial military assistance to a request for Ukraine to open up an investigation into former vice president and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden."
Sondland, a key witness in Democrats' impeachment inquiry, has testified that Trump explicitly told him there were "no quid pro quos of any kind" with Ukraine, including one in which military aid would be conditioned on any politically motivated investigations. (Sondland later amended his testimony, claiming his recollection had been "refreshed," to say that he had come to "understand" from other sources that Trump wanted Ukraine to issue an "anti-corruption statement.")
"First it was the Russia hoax -- then it was the Mueller witch hunt," Trump said, referencing the former special counsel, to sustained boos. "We've been going through this from before the election took place. A bunch of bad people, and then, one of the single greatest lies ever told by anybody in this government. ... and now the absolutely crazed lunatics, the Democrats, the radical left, and their media partners standing right back there, are pushing the deranged impeachment witch hunt, for doing nothing wrong. We did nothing wrong -- and they're doing nothing."
The president argued that Democrats were holding up a vote on his newly negotiated United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement [USMCA] trade deal so they could handle impeachment-related matters. Pelosi promised Thursday that a vote on USMCA was "imminent," but other House Democrats contradicted her later in the day, saying a vote was "close" but not quite that close.
Separately, Trump called the diplomats who have testified thus far in the impeachment probe "Never Trumpers," echoing GOP claims that the unelected bureaucrats simply were frustrated that the president was asserting his constitutional authority over foreign policy, and sidelining their agenda.
Then, mocking House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff's physical appearance, Trump remarked, "He will not make the LSU football team, and the neck is gone. He's a bad guy, a dishonest guy."
The president added that, but for his immunity as a congressman, Schiff, D-Calif., "should be prosecuted" for reading from a fake transcript of Trump's call with Ukraine's leader.
Later on, Trump offered an emotional introduction to Louisiana GOP Rep. Steve Scalise, who was nearly shot to death in 2017 by a Bernie Sanders supporter during a congressional baseball practice. Scalise had just been named the team's starting second baseman days earlier, and said he prayed to himself after he was shot by the gunman's high-powered rifle. (Capitol Hill security agents immediately engaged the gunman and, after more than a hundred rounds were fired, took him out.)
"We love you," Trump said. "He's a brave guy."
Although Trump won Louisiana by 20 percentage points in 2016, the gubernatorial contest has reached its final days ahead of Saturday’s election as a tossup.
"This Saturday, the eyes of history are looking down on the great people of Louisiana," Trump said. "It's a close one. You gotta vote on Saturday. You're gonna have a great Republican governor."
Democrat John Bel Edwards, whom Trump derided as "pro-abortion," has been vying for a second term against Republican political donor Eddie Rispone.
"I've known Eddie for a long time," Trump said. "He was a very successful guy, made a lot of money."
By contrast, Trump said, the incumbent had made Louisiana "number one in murders" in the entire country.
Trump was in north Louisiana’s Bossier City on Thursday night -- near-prime territory to reach out to backers of GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham, the primary's third-place finisher. Both Edwards and Rispone have been targeting Abraham's voters; Abraham endorsed Rispone and appeared at the rally with Trump.
Taking the microphone, Abraham suggested the impeachment inquiry was essentially a heap of horse excrement, and said the Marvin Gaye tune "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" would be an ideal theme song for all of the hearsay on offer.
Louisiana has the last of three Southern governor’s races this year, all targets of intense interest from the GOP and Trump. While Republicans kept the seat in Mississippi, they lost Kentucky’s governorship — with Republican Matt Bevin conceding the race earlier Thursday.
Smarting from the Kentucky outcome, Trump has turned his focus to Louisiana and defeating Edwards, the Deep South’s only Democrat holding a governor's seat. Thursday's event was the president's third in the state's gubernatorial competition, with an anti-Edwards event in the primary, and two pro-Rispone rallies in the runoff.
Rispone, the owner of an industrial contracting firm, has spent millions on the race, hitched his candidacy to Trump and hammered a pro-Trump theme ever since.
"Louisiana, we are Trump country!" Rispone told the crowd as he took the microphone at Thursday's rally. "He went to Alabama last weekend; he helped the LSU Tigers beat 'Bama. Now, we have to fire our liberal, tax-and-spend socialist-leaning governor John Bel Edwards. ... He has passed the highest tax in the history of Louisiana. He has attacked the oil-and-gas industry, where we've lost thousands of jobs. He has released over a thousand dangerous criminals. He supports New Orleans as a sanctuary city, and he and his greedy trial lawyer friends, they are causing us to have the second-highest car insurance in America."
Rispone concluded: "This is bigger than Louisiana. We have got to send a message to these liberal socialist Democrats in Washington that we support our president."
Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee and the campaign, said the RNC has invested $2 million in the race and had more than 60 staffers on the ground working in partnership with the Louisiana state party.
"The reason we have an election on Saturday is because the president went down there and held Gov. Edwards under 50 percent," Gorka told reporters ahead of the rally. "We're in it to win, and Louisiana deserves a governor who's going to be a partner with President Trump."
Edwards suggested Rispone has turned repeatedly to Trump and the national outlook because he couldn't stand on the strength of state-specific issues. Rispone has dodged details of how he'd balance the budget with his proposed tax cuts and what he wanted to accomplish in a constitutional convention.
Rispone was "trying to nationalize this race because that’s the only shot he has," Edwards said Thursday at a campaign rally in Shreveport. "He cannot win this race based on Louisiana issues because he hasn’t demonstrated any knowledge about how state government works. He doesn’t have any vision for the state of Louisiana."
The incumbent has stuck to Louisiana-specific topics, in a sort of "pretend-there’s-no-national-politics" angle to a race that partisans of both stripes have aimed to use as a talking point in 2020.
However, Edwards has not been a traditional Democrat in the national mold. He's a former Army Ranger who has opposed abortion, supported gun rights and talked of his solid working relationship with Trump.
Rispone has called Edwards a fear-mongering "tax-and-spend liberal trial lawyer" who didn't like the president.
Vance Gauthier, a 70-year-old contractor and Republican, cast his ballot for Rispone during the early voting period in Jefferson Parish, saying he was "looking for a change" and considered his vote in the state election a show of support for Trump.
"We need a Republican back in the position," Gauthier told The Associated Press.
But, race watchers said Trump's influence had its limits.
"I don't think Trump's bringing more to the table than has already been brought into the campaign," said Michael Henderson, director of Louisiana State University's Public Policy Research Center.
Edwards supporters said Trump’s visits actually have boosted their own chances, helping to turn out black voters and other Democrats who skipped the primary.
Melissa Toler, a 65-year-old retiree who voted early in New Orleans, said she chose Edwards "because he’s the best candidate, the most qualified, and the most reasonable." She said Trump’s visits to Louisiana stirred up interest.
"I'm a registered independent and he whips me up, not in a good way," Toler said.
In New Orleans and other cities with high concentrations of African American voters, several ads said Rispone's tight ties with Trump were a reason to vote for Edwards. And, while Edwards has sidestepped direct criticism of the president, his state party posted ads on Facebook declaring, "If Rispone wins, Trump wins," and asking voters to "keep hate out of Louisiana" by supporting Edwards.
The anti-Trump messaging by outside groups and Edwards' own grassroots outreach effort to black voters apparently have had an effect. African American turnout during the early voting period jumped significantly above primary levels, a critical piece of Edwards' strategy to win a second term.
Fox News' Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.