Alone in the White House in recent days, President Donald Trump – frustrated and defiant – has been spoiling for a fight, according to his confidants and associates.
Glued even more than usual to the cable news shows that blare from the televisions in his private living quarters, or from the 60-inch flat screen he had installed in his cramped study off the Oval Office, he has fumed about “fake news.” Trump has seethed as his agenda has stalled in Congress and the courts. He has chafed against the pleas for caution from his lawyers and political advisers, tweeting whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
And on Thursday, the president will come screen-to-screen with the former FBI director he fired, James Comey, who has consumed, haunted and antagonized him by overseeing an expanding Russia investigation that the president slammed as a “witch hunt.”
Comey’s testimony is a political Super Bowl – with television networks interrupting regular programming to air it, and some Washington offices and bars making plans for special viewings.
Trump is keen to be a participant rather than just another viewer, two senior White House officials said, including the possibility of taking to Twitter to offer acerbic commentary during the hearing.
“I wish him good luck,” the president told reporters on Tuesday.
“He’s infuriated at a deep-gut, personal level that the elite media has tolerated (the Russia story) and praised Comey,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said. “He’s not going to let some guy like that smear him without punching him as hard as he can.”
This account of Trump’s mind-set and the preparations of his team in the run-up to Comey’s testimony is based on interviews with 20 White House officials, Trump friends and other senior Republicans, many of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity to offer candid perspectives.
The president’s lawyers and aides have been urging him to resist engaging, and they hope to keep him busy Thursday with other events meant to compete for his – and the news media’s – attention.
“The president’s going to have a very, very busy day,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “I think his focus is going to be on pursuing the agenda and the priorities that he was elected to do.”
As of now, Trump’s Thursday morning – when Comey is scheduled to start testifying – is open. He plans to deliver a 12:30 p.m. speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s conference in Washington, D.C., followed by a 3:30 p.m. meeting with governors and mayors on infrastructure projects.
Jay Sekulow, a prominent conservative lawyer in Washington, has met several times recently with Trump and said he found the president to have his attention squarely on his priorities.
“He’s been very much in control and in command,” Sekulow said. “I don’t sense any siege or panic at all. … I’ve been there a lot, and I don’t see the president in any context distracted or flustered by any of this. I just don’t see it.”
But privately, Trump’s advisers said they are bracing for a worst-case scenario: that he ignores their advice and tweets his mind.
“He’s not going to take an attack by James Comey laying down,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and former political adviser. “Trump is a fighter, he’s a brawler and he’s the best counterpuncher in American politics.”
He’s not going to let some guy like that smear him without punching him as hard as he can
The president increasingly has come to see Twitter as his preferred method of communicating with his supporters, no matter the pitfalls.
“The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media. They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning, making a reference to the “mainstream media.”
The West Wing, meanwhile, has taken on an atmosphere of legal uncertainty. White House counsel Donald McGahn has told staff to hold onto emails, documents and phone records, officials said, a move of caution designed to prepare the staff for future legal requests, should they come. McGahn has specifically advised staffers to avoid what are known as the “burn bags” in the executive branch that are often used to discard papers.
While people familiar with the White House counsel’s office described McGahn’s moves as appropriate steps because of the ongoing probes, they said many junior staffers are increasingly skittish and fearful of their communications eventually finding their way into the hands of investigators.
Some staffers nervous about their own personal liability are contemplating hiring lawyers and have become more rigorous about not putting things in text messages or emails that they would not want to be subpoenaed, one person familiar with the situation said.
Attempting to invoke executive privilege to restrict Comey’s testimony was never seriously considered by Trump or his legal team, said one senior White House official. But, this official added, the White House liked floating the possibility as a distraction.
In the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony, the White House had privately tried to erect a war room that would handle the communications and legal strategies for responding to the Russia matter. Former Trump campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie were in discussions to lead it.
But the plan was scuttled, as with so much else in Trump’s administration, because of internal disagreements, according to multiple officials. Arguments included whether the war room would be run from inside or outside the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; who would staff it; whether they could be trusted by the president’s senior team, or even trust one another; and whether Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s outside counsel, would ultimately control the message.
Kasowitz, who has a long-standing relationship with Trump, has been operating as an island of sorts in Trump world. He has been meeting regularly with the president and has a nascent relationship with McGahn, but he has not widely shared his legal strategy within the West Wing, according to two officials involved.
Kasowitz, whose combative personality mirrors Trump, has not found it easy to entice other big-name lawyers with Washington experience to join the cause because many prominent attorneys are reluctant to have him giving them direction and wonder whether he will be able to keep Trump from stumbling, one official said.
In the absence of a war room – and with the departure of communications director Michael Dubke – planning for the White House’s response to the Comey hearing has fallen largely to Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and his lieutenants.
Trump’s team is preparing a campaign-style line of attack aimed at undercutting Comey’s reputation. They plan to portray him as a “showboat” and to bring up past controversies from his career, including his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation in 2016, according to people involved in the planning.
The Republican National Committee has lined up a roster of surrogates to appear on conservative news stations nationwide to defend Trump. But a list the RNC distributed on Tuesday could hardly be described as star-studded: The names include Bob Paduchik, an RNC co-chair who worked on Trump’s Ohio campaign; Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, R; and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, R.
Trump so far has been unable to recruit reinforcements for his beleaguered senior staff. Conversations about former Trump campaign official David Urban possibly joining the White House have stalled, although he remains in contact with several Trump advisers, officials said.
The White House has long struggled with its communications team, with Trump both privately and publicly voicing displeasure with his current staff. Press secretary Sean Spicer has started appearing less frequently on camera, and Trump and several top advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, are considering a range of options to revamp the current structure.
Every lawyer would tell the president not to tweet, not to react. But he’s not listening
The White House recently approached Geoff Morrell – who served as the Pentagon press secretary for more than four years under former Defense Secretary Robert Gates – about coming inside the administration and overhauling the communications operation, according to three people with knowledge of the overture.
Morrell declined to comment, but BP announced last month that Morrell would be moving to London this summer to run government relations and communications for the company globally.
Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was also approached about taking a communications role within the White House, according to two people familiar with the outreach. Reed declined to comment.
In addition, Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk-radio host and Trump friend, discussed joining the White House but made clear to officials that she is more comfortable remaining outside as a vocal Trump ally because of her many broadcasting and media commitments, officials said.
Some Trump loyalists outside the White House who are preparing to go on television news shows Thursday to defend the president and undermine Comey’s testimony said they have been given no talking points, nor seen any evidence of a strategy taking shape. One such loyalist said external supporters are afraid to coordinate too closely with the White House because they fear they could be accused of obstructing justice.
Trump is personally reaching out to some allies on the Senate Intelligence Committee ahead of their questioning of Comey. He was scheduled to have dinner Tuesday night at the White House with Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., both committee members, along with a few other lawmakers. The dinner had been long scheduled for the president to offer a debrief on his foreign trip, a senior White House official said.
Inside the West Wing, senior officials and junior aides fear that the president’s erratic behavior could have sweeping legal and political consequences, and they are frustrated that he has not proven able to focus on his agenda – this was supposed to be “infrastructure week,” for instance. Many are also resigned to the idea that there is little they can do to moderate or thwart Trump’s moves, so instead they are focused on managing the fallout.
One Republican close to the White House summed up the staff’s mantra as: “Please, don’t, you’re not helping things.”
But Trump and his loyalists see a political advantage to the president personally engaging, however unseemly it may appear to traditionalists.
“He believes in the long run there is an enormous premium on being the person who stands there fighting,” said Gingrich, author of “Understanding Trump,” an upcoming book. “People respond to that and wonder if he’s fighting this hard, maybe he’s right and the other guys are wrong. It’s the core of how he operates.”
Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor and criminal law expert whose television commentary on the Russia probe has caught the Trump team’s attention, said he understands why the president would be motivated to speak out to counter Comey’s testimony.
“Every lawyer would tell the president not to tweet, not to react,” Dershowitz said. “But he’s not listening. This is typical. I tell my clients all the time not to talk and they simply disregard it. It’d very hard to tell a very wealthy, very powerful man not to tweet. He thinks, ‘I tweeted my way to the presidency,’ and he’s determined to tweet.”