In late July, in the middle of a torturous summer when the country was roiled by one crisis after another, White House reporters gathered for a breakfast chat with Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to President Obama. As we downed our croissants and coffee, Pfeiffer rattled off some unremarkable talking points, took a shot at the GOP for howling about his boss’s leadership style—”There are people who criticize the president for getting out of bed in the morning”—and then, unprompted, declared that House Republicans could try to impeach the president before his time in office was up.
Most every reporter at the table knew this last suggestion was a dubious proposition at best. We knew, too, precisely what Pfeiffer was up to: In a midterm election year, with Democrats jittery about retaining their Senate majority, one surefire way to gin up the party’s base, and perhaps capture some swing voters in the process, was to paint the GOP as unhinged and extreme. We knew full well that we were being played, that this was the White House’s go-to communications strategy: Change the narrative by setting the Twittersphere on fire. But that didn’t stop most of us, as soon as the breakfast ended, from pulling out our laptops and furiously typing and tweeting. “It’s catnip,” an Obama aide told me later.
Sure enough, within minutes, the story had mushroomed, spreading at a rate that would alarm the CDC. Republicans were tied in knots, with House Speaker John Boehner forced to deny that he would do something he never intended to do in the first place, while less-disciplined Republican members of Congress took the bait and ratcheted up their impeachment talk. Money flowed into Democratic coffers as the tempest carried into the following week.