The White House and its allies have scrambled to create a robust outside operation to punch at FBI Director James Comey during his high-stakes testimony on Thursday, but West Wing aides — fearful that they could get further sucked into the Russia probe — are trying to avoid being the messengers themselves.
Thursday’s hearing is among the most serious threats that Trump has ever faced. That it will play out on live television is fitting for the real estate mogul who rode reality television stardom to the presidency.
Comey is expected to allege, in precise detail, that Trump tried to score a loyalty pledge from him, tried to quash an investigation into one of Trump’s closest allies, and grew increasingly obsessed with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — all in his opening remarks, shown live on national TV.
But for a president whose allies have endured crises and controversies since the day he entered the political scene, Thursday is seen as a challenge that, while serious, is not exactly unprecedented for a cohort that has battled sexual assault allegations, defended repeated unfounded claims, and won an election that many thought was unwinnable.
“It’s fair to say a storm is coming,” one administration source said. “We’re boarding up the windows for the impending hurricane.”
Trump’s aides are also aware of the legal risk they face themselves – and have mostly been careful to outsource the Comey attack efforts.
The Republican National Committee is taking the lead in the response and has prepared a surrogate operation. It will be using the same rapid-response machinery it honed during presidential debates to provide counter-programming and leap on any dubious claims or statements that contradict previous accounts.
“The RNC’s role is to support and defend the president and this White House and this week is no different,” said Ryan Mahoney, the RNC communications director. “And we prepare for everything, and we’re prepared for the hearing this week.”
Local and national surrogate operations are ready to go. Talking points will be widely distributed and briefing calls will be held to prep surrogates during the day.
Two former Trump White House officials — former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh and former communications director Mike Dubke — are helping coordinate the effort. Press secretary Sean Spicer was at the RNC on Wednesday as preparations took place.
The aim at the RNC is to depict Comey as a disgruntled former employee out to destroy the president who fired him. The talking points also note that Democrats had previously been critical of Comey and stress that there is still no evidence of any collision between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Meanwhile, an outside PAC, the Great America Alliance, is prepared to run television adds slamming Comey as a “showboat” — the same epithet Trump used against him — and painting him as a political hack, according to The Associated Press.
But White House aides are nervous about personally attacking Comey for his testimony, fearing it could boomerang back against them.
For official comment, the White House has directed all questions to the office of Trump’s outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz. Kasowitz’s office, in turn, has directed inquires to Emily Thall, the law firm’s director of business development and marketing. On Tuesday, Thall declined to comment in a brief conversation with POLITICO about Comey testimony.
By Wednesday, inquiries to Thall were met with an automatic response: She would be out of the office on vacation until next week. By Wednesday night, Kasowitz’s firm had retained longtime political communications pro Mark Corallo to handle media inquiries.
The White House office of legislative affairs, which works closely with members of Congress, is not distributing talking points ahead of the hearing, according to one official. The office is attempting to stay focused on health care reform — but is also wary of being seen as interfering in an ongoing investigation, the official said.
One White House adviser said administration officials have told surrogates to question Comey’s credibility — but the White House is cautious about doing it, given Trump’s campaign aides and allies are operating under the cloud of investigation. White House officials “want it particularly noted,” this person said, that Comey had previously said the investigation had not been obstructed.
(Comey’s comments, however, were specifically about potential interference from the attorney general or senior Justice Department officials.)
They also want to highlight Democrats’ past criticism of Comey, this adviser said.
“If the Democrats are praising Comey and saying how honorable he is, it seems as good a time as any to remind them what they said previously,” the official said.
But that task will be easier for those outside the White House rather than in it.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s mandate from the Department of Justice isn’t just to pursue potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He also has a green light if his investigators uncover obstruction of justice, perjury and evidence destruction.
That broad reach has veterans of past federal and congressional investigations warning Trump and his inner circle to be mindful since any public statements they make related to the Russia probes could end up being used as evidence in any potential criminal cases.
Trump, who is distrustful of many in his administration and kept his decision to fire Comey away from many senior administration officials, often doesn’t trust others to get his message out.
So while aides say they are trying to manage Trump’s tweets, and keep his public exposure limited amid the investigations, he is lashing out and wants to defend himself even more, in the words of one person who has spoken to him.
White House aides are trying to keep Trump busy Thursday morning with meetings so he won’t watch TV and tweet during the hearing.
“But if he wants to watch it, it’s not like we can say, ‘oh, the TV doesn’t work,’” one official said.
But the outsider dominance of the operation underscores the conundrum for White House officials: As possible witnesses in any case themselves, attacking Comey for his testimony could be a legally perilous task.
For example, several of Trump’s posts on Twitter about the investigation, calling it a “witch hunt” and that Comey “better hope that there are no tapes” of their conversation “could well be interpreted as an effort to intimidate a witness,” said Michael Forde, a trial lawyer who represented then-mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel in litigation challenging his qualifications to run for office.
The risks are real given the range of topics Mueller and his team could explore. After all, White House aides who in their day jobs are being tasked with responding to the Russia probe are also being urged to hire lawyers if they end up on the receiving end of any informal or official requests for testimony and documents related to the investigation.
“The potential consequences and roads that they’re going to go down are not clear. Even if they feel they’ve done nothing wrong, the complicated nature of this means they’re not in the best position to explain or defend themselves,” said a former GOP White House attorney.
But attacking Comey, or even Mueller, from the White House certainly wouldn’t be without precedent. The Clinton White House famously went after Ken Starr on a frequent basis during his investigations that ultimately led to House impeachment and a Senate trial.
“People in the White House have a right to defend themselves,” said former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn. “That said, I think that in circumstances like this it is difficult but important to hold one’s fire. If people react instantaneously to testimony that’s provided, there’s a significant risk that the response is going to get something wrong. If experienced counsel who’ve been through these investigations before are counseling the people who tend to talk, they’re more likely than not going to be told that instead of giving off the cuff rebuttal to what they’re hearing to be thoughtful about it.”
“The instantaneous response without the benefit of careful consideration and in some cases investigation is just not a good idea,” Quinn added.
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.
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