President Donald Trump stayed off Twitter and on message Thursday, letting his spokespeople, lawyers and other surrogates do what he pays them to do: fight back against James Comey.
The president decided ahead of time that he would not live-tweet the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, according to two administration officials, and watched some of the proceedings in a White House dining room surrounded by aides and lawyers. One of the officials described the mood in the room as “light.”
Trump didn’t watch cable news after the hearing wrapped up, instead carrying on with a speech and a planned event with Cabinet officials, governors and mayors focused on infrastructure, smiling and not responding when a pool reporter asked if he had any response to Comey’s testimony.
But as the day wore on, aides began to voice concerns that their boss would “explode” later in the evening or on Friday after he watches TV news coverage and talks to friends in New York and Florida — a pattern of delayed response that’s repeated itself in the months since Trump took office.
Trump was also quiet after setbacks like the failure of his first health care bill in March, only to fire back the next day on Twitter. “Everyone knows this is bad, but hard to know how bad anything really is anymore,” said one GOP official close to the White House. “In some ways they seem resigned that this is just their life now.”
Staffers had been prepared to deal with new revelations about Comey’s interactions with the president, or salacious allegations like a claim in Comey’s written testimony that the president in one of their private conversations had voluntarily denied engaging Russian hookers.
“It’s just the uncertainty that comes along with anything like this,” said a White House aide.
Instead, they were relieved when nothing that hadn’t already been reported publicly came up in the hearings. “The Cat 4 hurricane hit a cold patch and made landfall as nothing more than a tropical depression,” the aide added.
After his abrupt decision to fire Comey in May, Trump repeatedly took to Twitter to vent his anger. On May 12, after The New York Times reported that Trump requested Comey’s loyalty in a private dinner, the president posted: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Comey testified on Thursday that he decided to authorize the public disclosure of memos he wrote detailing his interactions with the president following that tweet — disclosures that ultimately resulted in the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to oversee the FBI’s investigation into contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
After the hearing, Trump’s outside counsel attacked Comey for disclosing the content of the memos, and said the White House will let the authorities determine whether to investigate the ousted FBI chief.
“Today, Mr. Comey admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the president,” said Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s longtime New York attorney. “We will leave it [to] the appropriate authorities to determine whether this [sic] leaks should be investigated along with all those others being investigated.”
Comey opened the hearing with a damaging set of accusations against the White House, testifying that Donald Trump pressured him to close a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, fired him in an attempt to change the course of the larger Russia probe, and then launched a campaign of “lies” to discredit him.
Those included claims that he was dismissed because of unhappiness with how he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server last year. “The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI, by saying the organization was poorly led,” the ex-FBI chief said. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fired back, telling reporters at the White House that “the president is not a liar” even as Comey was still testifying across town.
“No, I can definitively say the president is not a liar,” Sanders said during an off-camera briefing Thursday. “It’s frankly insulting that that question would be asked.”
Staffers, who have tried to limit Trump’s tweeting in recent weeks, were initially concerned that the president would feel compelled to respond directly to Comey’s claims, especially if he was disappointed with the communications response.
That effort was being orchestrated by the Republican National Committee, with help from Trump’s former communications director, Michael Dubke.
While Trump stayed off Twitter, his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., stepped in Thursday to offer his analysis of Comey’s testimony, a move that one of the aides described as “spontaneous.”
“Knowing my father for 39 years when he ‘orders or tells’ you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means,” Trump Jr. tweeted in response to Comey’s claims that he believed Trump was directing him not to continue his investigation of Flynn.
At lunchtime, Trump was greeted with a standing ovation by evangelical Christian activists at the annual Faith and Freedom Coalition Road to Majority conference.
The president touted the early successes of his administration: the appointment and confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a crackdown on violent gangs and undocumented immigrants living in so-called sanctuary cities, and his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
The gathering, at a hotel northwest of downtown Washington, felt like a world removed from the rest of the city.
The president made no direct reference to Comey’s testimony — but he did allude to feeling under pressure. “We’re under siege. You understand that,” he said.
A woman in the crowd responded: “That’s right.”
Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.
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