The White House is dusting off its playbook from the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
Caught off guard by the speed at which a whistleblower’s claims have morphed into an impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump and his team are scrambling to respond.
They’re turning, at least for now, to some of the same strategies they used to counter special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The basic tactics deployed by the short-staffed White House: Attempt to discredit government officials at the heart of the story. Dispatch Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other allies to muddy the picture. Lean on Republicans in Congress to provide cover.
And, most of all, presidential counterattacks.
Just as the Republican president considers himself to be his own best adviser, he often acts as his own most vocal defender.
“It’s a disgrace to our country. It’s another witch-hunt. Here we go again,” an agitated Trump said Thursday as he returned to Washington after four days at the United Nations in New York. “They’re frozen — the Democrats. They’re going to lose the election; they know it. That’s why they’re doing it. And it should never be allowed, what’s happened to this president.”
The velocity at which the whistleblower story enveloped Washington was remarkable.
In just a few days’ time, a whistleblower’s complaint that Trump encouraged the president of Ukraine to help investigate political rival Joe Biden led to congressional hearings, allegations of a White House cover-up and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announcing the start of an impeachment inquiry.
The White House was not ready.
While Trump’s strategists have long believed an impeachment push could backfire against Democrats, the president has also voiced concern that impeachment could become the first line of his political obituary.
He lashed out after Pelosi announced the inquiry, firing off tweets from his New York penthouse and winding down his U.N. stay with a press conference at which he seemed aggrieved and subdued.
The next morning, at what was meant to be a salute to the workers from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Trump let loose with a threatening tone on Thursday.
“I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” Trump said, according to audio released by The Los Angeles Times. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
At the same time, Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, appeared before Congress and acknowledged that the complaint filed by the whistleblower alleged serious wrongdoing by the president.
Aligning themselves with the White House, most Republican legislators at the hearing wasted few chances to try to undermine the unidentified whistleblower’s credibility. They tried shifting the focus to Democrats and unproven theories, much like those the GOP used to attack Mueller when he testified about his Russia investigation over the summer.
Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut called it a “kaleidoscope of fantabulistic conspiracy theories.”
With his trademark scattershot style, Giuliani played a key role in muddying the facts and trying to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation.
In this case, Giuliani’s outreach to the new Ukraine government to investigate Joe Biden made up a major piece of the whistleblower’s complaint, and the former New York City mayor went on offense again as scrutiny of his actions intensified.
“The complaint is questionable and the whistleblower is a pure partisan,” Giuliani said, without supplying evidence for either assertion.
He then tried to shift the focus onto Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He claimed the Californian had been trying “frame” Trump for years and “should be investigated for lying, enabling perjury, and trampling on constitutional rights.”
A weary West Wing, after being shadowed for two years by the Mueller probe, lacks the organization required to sustain a serious impeachment fight.
During the Clinton impeachment, the White House had a muscular team of veteran lawyers and aggressive press aides to try to shape news coverage in their favor. The Trump White House has no equivalent.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham asserts that “nothing has changed” with the whistleblower’s complaint. But the White House has largely ignored substantive questions about the allegations. And its strategy appears hinged on hopes that the partisan frenzy stoked both by both the progressive left and Trump himself will cloud out substantive concerns raised by the whistleblower.
The White House strategy, in close coordination with Trump’s reelection campaign, is aimed at motivating the president’s base supporters to stick with him in 2020.
But allies suggest there is a risk that the Trump’s team is focusing too much on the campaign at the expense of the perilous Capitol Hill proceedings that lie ahead.
Rejecting any hint of a setback, President Donald Trump on Wednesday mocked members of his own party who were defeated in the midterm elections after distancing themselves from him and suggested that the Republicans’ loss of a House majority could turn out to be “extremely good” for him politically.
Trump dissected the elections in a combative White House news conference that stretched to nearly 90 minutes as he put a defiantly glossy sheen on the mixed midterm results and stressed his party’s victories in the Senate.
“I thought it was very close to complete victory,” Trump said, adding that he would “almost have to think about” whether he would have preferred Republicans to retain a slim majority in the House instead of their outright loss. Candidates who embraced his message “excelled,” and those who didn’t faltered, the president added, ticking off a selective list of defeated Republicans to support his point.
The president’s post-election readout showed his determination to put a positive spin on midterms that will bring an end to GOP control of Congress and open him to Democratic-led investigations in the House. And it made clear the extent to which Trump has remade his party to his own specifications, as he suggested that those who survived were indebted to him, a president who prizes loyalty above all else.
The results, Trump argued, were proof of his ability to turn out voters. But his message also appeared to alienate well-educated voters — especially women — in the suburbs. Democrats surged to their new House majority by picking up seats in more affluent and highly educated suburban districts
Between his sharp jabs at the press, Trump took credit for Republican wins in the Senate, claiming his “vigorous campaigning stopped the blue wave” that never fully materialize. He was quick to distance himself from losing GOP House members who had been critical of his heated rhetoric, citing Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, among others.
“Too bad, Mike,” Trump said of Coffman, before turning on Utah’s Mia Love, whose race remained too close to call.
“Mia Love gave me no love and she lost,” Trump said.
Trump’s claim that those who backed him were successful was not without exceptions. Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, for example was defeated although he had embraced Trump, with both highlighting their desire to get more of the president’s judicial nominees confirmed, a top priority for many social conservatives.
The president also suggested that, somehow, losing a House majority could be beneficial to his agenda because Democrats will want to work with him.
“I can see it being extremely good politically,” he said.
The president’s rebuke was felt on Capitol Hill. Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican from Pennsylvania who announced his retirement earlier this year, tweeted his displeasure: “To deal w harassment & filth spewed at GOP MOC’s in tough seats every day for 2 yrs, bc of POTUS; to bite ur lip more times you’d care to; to disagree & separate from POTUS on principle & civility in ur campaign; to lose bc of POTUS & have him piss on u. Angers me to my core.”
Trump, who had spent months demonizing Democrats as lawless “mobs” and telling his rally crowds that their ascendancy would tank the economy and plunge the nation into crime-ridden chaos, said Wednesday it was time for bipartisan co-operation. He claimed that Democrats — who made opposing him a centerpiece to their campaign — would, in fact, be eager to work with him on issues like infrastructure. But the olive branch he extended was studded with thorns as he declared that he would retaliate if Democrats use their control of the House to issue subpoenas to seek his tax returns and investigate his business dealings, his Cabinet’s conduct and his campaign’s ties to Russia, as expected.
“They can play that game, but we can play it better. Because we have a thing called the United States Senate,” Trump said. “If that happens, then we’re going to do the same thing and government would come to a halt and we’re going to blame them.”
The White House news conference was punctuated by Trump’s escalating attacks on the media. The president repeatedly flashed his temper as he insulted several reporters by name, interrupted their questions, ordered some to sit down and deemed one inquiry about his embrace of the description “nationalist” to be “racist.”
His back-and-forth with CNN reporter Jim Acosta over Trump’s hard-line immigration rhetoric grew especially heated, with Trump labeling the reporter a “very rude person” and saying the outlet “should be ashamed of itself” for employing him.
Trump, as he did throughout the campaign, also blamed the media for sowing division in the country and insisted they were to blame for the scene unfolding in the East Room.
“I come in here as a nice person wanting to answer questions and I have people jumping out of their seats shouting questions at me,” he complained.
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Darlene Superville and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.
Facing the prospect of bruising electoral defeat in congressional elections, President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he won’t accept the blame if his party loses control of the House in November, arguing his campaigning and endorsements have helped Republican candidates.
In a wide-ranging interview three weeks before Election Day, Trump told The Associated Press he senses voter enthusiasm rivaling 2016 and he expressed cautious optimism that his most loyal supporters will vote even when he is not on the ballot. He dismissed suggestions that he might take responsibility, as his predecessor did, for midterm losses or view the outcome as a referendum on his presidency.
“No, I think I’m helping people,” Trump said. “I don’t believe anybody’s ever had this kind of an impact.”
Trump spoke on a range of subjects, defending Saudi Arabia from growing condemnation over the case of a missing journalist, accusing his longtime attorney Michael Cohen of lying under oath and flashing defiance when asked about the insult — “Horseface” — he hurled at Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who accuses him of lying about an affair.
Throughout much of the nearly 40-minute interview, he sat, arms crossed, in the Oval Office behind the Resolute Desk, flanked by top aides, including White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications director Bill Shine. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway listened from a nearby sofa.
The interview came as Trump’s administration was being urged to pressure Saudi Arabia to account for the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Instead, Trump offered a defense for the U.S. ally, warning against a rush to judgment, like with what happened with his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault.
“Well, I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump said. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh. And he was innocent all the way.”
Weeks away from the midterms, Democrats are hopeful about their chances to recapture the House, while Republicans are increasingly confident they can hold control of the Senate.
Trump has been campaigning aggressively in a blitz of rallies aimed at firing up his base. He said he believes he’s doing his job, but allowed he has heard from some of his supporters who say they may not vote this November.
“I’m not running,” he said. “I mean, there are many people that have said to me … ‘I will never ever go and vote in the midterms because you’re not running and I don’t think you like Congress.’” He added: “Well, I do like Congress.”
If Democrats take the House and pursue impeachment or investigations — including seeking his long-hidden tax returns— Trump said he will “handle it very well.”
The president declared he was unconcerned about other potential threats to his presidency. He accused Cohen of lying when testifying under oath that the president coordinated on a hush-money scheme to buy Daniels’ silence.
Trump on Tuesday declared the allegation “totally false.” But in entering a plea deal with Cohen in August, federal prosecutors signaled that they accepted his recitation of facts and account of what occurred.
Trump said that Washington lawyer Pat Cipollone will serve as his next White House counsel and that he hoped to announce a replacement for U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the next week or two. He again repeated his frustration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the special counsel investigation, saying he could “fire him whenever I want to fire him, but I haven’t said that I was going to.”
On the ongoing Russia investigation, Trump defended his son Donald Trump Jr. for a Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer offering damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump called his son a “good young guy” and said he did what any political aide would have done.
Trump again cast doubt on climate change, suggesting, incorrectly, that the scientific community was evenly split on the existence of climate change and its causes. There are “scientists on both sides of the issue,” Trump said.
“But what I’m not willing to do is sacrifice the economic well-being of our country for something that nobody really knows,” Trump said.
He added: “I have a natural instinct for science, and I will say that you have scientists on both sides of the picture.”
Asked about his wartime leadership, Trump acknowledged that he has not brought U.S. troops home from conflict zones overseas and that there are more Americans serving in harm’s way now than when he took office.
“It’s not a lot more. It’s a little bit more,” he said.
Saying he’s trying to preserve “safety at home,” Trump added that if there are areas where people are threatening the U.S., “I’m going to have troops there for a period of time.”
Trump increased U.S. troop totals in Afghanistan by about 4,000 last year.
The president engaged on several other topics, including:
— He said he has given no consideration to pardoning Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman who was convicted of numerous financial crimes.
— He suggested that his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would happen after next month’s midterm elections and would likely not be in the United States.
— He broke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed changes to Social Security to control the deficit.
— And he defended his decision to break from his predecessors and not yet visit a military base in a combat zone, claiming it was not “overly necessary.”
Repeatedly stressing what he saw as the achievements of his first two years, Trump said he’d be seeking another term because there was “always more work to do.”
“The new motto is Keep America Great,” Trump said. “I don’t want somebody to destroy it because I can do a great job, but the wrong person coming in after me sitting right at this desk can destroy it very quickly if they don’t do the right thing. So no, I’m definitely running.”
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.
They were the 13 days that transformed the White House.
Even for an administration that spent most of 2017 throwing off headlines at a dizzying pace, events in the second half of July unfolded at breakneck speed. They encapsulated both the promise and peril of President Donald Trump’s first year in office — and yielded aftershocks that reverberate within the White House even as the calendar turns to 2018.
The two-week span laid bare the splintering of Trump’s relationships with two influential Cabinet members; foreshadowed the reach of the Russia probe into the interior of his orbit; saw the dramatic, last-minute defeat of one of the president’s signature campaign promises; and featured a senior staff shakeup that reset the rhythms of this presidency.
From the outside, it was an unruly stretch that threatened to turn the White House into a sideshow. Inside the West Wing, the chaotic days between July 19-31 stand as a panicked memory but also one that also paved the way for future successes, according to nearly two dozen administration officials, outside advisers and lawmakers. Most of those interviewed for this account spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk publicly about private discussions.
For the record, though: “That was the extreme,” said former press secretary Sean Spicer.
His suit perfect and his hair just so, Anthony Scaramucci lifted his right hand off the briefing room podium and blew a kiss to the slack-jawed White House press corps.
Trump’s new communications director, known to his friends as the Mooch, made his dramatic debut on July 21 and aimed to usher in a new era at a White House riven by in-fighting, drowning in bad press and struggling to maintain credibility.
He lasted 11 days.
Scaramucci’s shockingly brief tenure — some White House aides have taken to calling a short period of time a “Mooch” — underscored the drama that dominated and frequently paralyzed the West Wing.
This was a White House where aides undermined each other with blind items in the press and jockeyed for face time with a president who left the Oval Office door open. Self-proclaimed “nationalists,” led by chief strategist Steve Bannon, were pitted against more centrist “globalists,” who included Trump’s powerful adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
How the rivalries played out in the press was particularly important for Trump, the former reality TV star who consumes hours of cable news each day. For months, he demanded that his schedule be arranged so he could watch the daily White House press briefing, often barking at aides about what he was seeing in between sips of Diet Coke in his private dining room.
Some of his rants were about the “fake” news media. But many were about Spicer, whom Trump believed failed to adequately defend him — or to look the part. Long believing he was his own best spokesman, Trump told one confidant that he saw something of himself in Scaramucci, a rich, fast-talking New York hedge fund manager who excelled on television. Within hours of when Scaramucci was hired, Spicer quit.
That was only the beginning of the drama: Scaramucci fired one staffer and threatened to push others out, including the entire press shop. He vowed to cut down on leaks, but many in the White House believed that was a cover story for his own vengeful agenda. Believing that Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus had initially blocked his entrance to the White House, Scaramucci moved to oust them, culminating in a New Yorker interview in which he graphically cursed out both men.
Scaramucci himself was pushed out the door days later. Scaramucci’s expletive-laden interview was only part of the problem.
Trump was unwilling to share the spotlight with an aide, and came to believe Scaramucci had forgotten his place.
Tension was thick in the air as Trump and several top advisers strode out of a windowless room at the Pentagon on July 20 and climbed into a waiting motorcade.
Over the previous 150 minutes, top U.S. officials had explained to the president the critical importance of forward worldwide deployments of U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic assets. For months, Trump had questioned why the U.S. government needed “so many people” abroad and suggested that he wanted to reduce its footprint, an idea that triggered alarm in capitals around the globe.
Armed with charts, maps and diagrams, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others schooled Trump with talking points and commentary sure to click with the former businessman. They stressed the role that the military, intelligence officers and diplomats play in making the world safe for American businesses like The Trump Organization to operate and expand abroad.
In a limited way, Trump agreed with Mattis and Tillerson, grudgingly agreeing to increase the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But on a broad range of foreign policy matters, Trump has steadfastly refused to adopt conventional approaches, straining decades-long alliances, refusing to condemn authoritarian regimes on human rights abuses and escalating the rhetoric in a nuclear stand-off with North Korea.
The meeting in Room 2E924, known as “The Tank,” highlighted the sharp learning curve that the president, who had never held elected office or served in the military, faced as he grew into his new job. It also revealed the tensions within the administration between those from Washington’s national security establishment and those eager to pull back from international entanglements.
That rift only grew after the top-secret gathering. It was soon after the meeting concluded that Tillerson was reported to have privately called the president “a moron.” The secretary of state pointedly did not deny that he had done so — eventually, a State Department spokeswoman did — and it prompted a furious response from Trump, who repeatedly undermined Tillerson on his approach to North Korea.
But Tillerson was not the only attendee at The Tank to have misgivings after the session.
In the days that followed, Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, encouraged his best friend, Homeland Security chief John Kelly, to take the White House chief of staff job.
Buffeted by fierce rains and wind, Air Force One circled over Washington on July 28. When it finally touched down at Joint Base Andrews, a new phase of the presidency began.
In a series of tweets, Trump announced that he was appointing Kelly, a retired four-star general, to replace Priebus. As the 140-character bursts reached their smart phones, a pair of senior White House aides who been sitting in an idling SUV with Priebus stepped out onto the rainy tarmac and left the outgoing chief of staff alone.
Priebus never could bring a semblance of order to the rivals that populated Trump’s West Wing and the president had openly mused about replacing him. Never empowered to fully step into the role, Priebus often acted as merely the captain of his own squad of establishment Republicans, vying with Bannon and Kushner for influence.
Trump had previously floated the job to Kelly, who initially demurred. Kelly told confidants he had a change of heart because he felt that the president’s term had been imperiled by poor staff work.
“I don’t think you can overestimate the effect of the impact of those (staff) changes and that period,” Marc Lotter, Vice President Mike Pence’s spokesman, said at the time.
One of Kelly’s first official moves was to fire Scaramucci. In the months that followed, other headline-grabbing aides — Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Omarosa Manigault-Newman — also were pushed out as Kelly tried to enforce a one-team ethos. Most impactfully, aides said, Kelly worked to cut down access to the Oval Office and seize control of how information reached Trump.
Several advisers deemed Kelly’s hire a turning point for the administration, a move that cut down on internal fights, restored order to the West Wing and laid the groundwork for wins down the road.
“Once myself, Reince and Steve were out of the picture, I think that moved the target off — it got people back to focus,” Spicer recalled.
But there were limits to what Kelly could — or would — control.
The chief of staff made clear he would mount no effort to manage Trump’s no-holds Twitter habit. And Trump, in turn, chafed at Kelly’s handling.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood on the Senate floor, his arms crossed, his face impassive. Trump, back at the White House, had hung up the phone, his last attempt at persuasion over.
At 1:29 a.m. on July 28, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona strode onto the Senate floor. The 80-year-old, just weeks after a brain cancer diagnosis, was poised to cast the tiebreaking vote on the GOP’s health care bill, in what was meant to be the fulfillment of seven years of work to undo President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
McCain paused for a moment, and then flashed a thumbs-down, drawing gasps from fellow senators. The bill was dead, and the White House had been dealt a devastating blow.
Though Trump had spent the presidential campaign promising to repeal and replace Obamacare on Day One of his administration, the Republican effort had failed. It was a fiasco that underscored how the White House was struggling to push through Trump’s agenda even though his party controlled both houses of Congress.
Frequently exhibiting a shaky grasp of policy details, Trump often baffled aides by waffling on various options — including whether the GOP should repeal the Affordable Care Act and come up with a replacement later, or let it simply starve by not paying subsidies. His approach to lawmakers on Capitol Hill was equally inconsistent.
Trump snarled in private about McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan and showed no hesitation to air his grievances publicly. He used Twitter to deliver broadsides against the majority leader — urging him to “get back to work” — and targeted individual Republican senators whose health care votes the White House once courted.
But from the ashes of the health care defeat came the administration’s first major legislative triumph: the tax cut legislation passed on Dec. 20.
The bungled legislative process on health care sparked a new call for discipline in the administration’s approach to Capitol Hill. The White House would buy in to the plan at the start. Staff would cajole wavering legislators and work to resolve their concerns while there was still time to address them. Trump’s political operation would begin work to sell the tax package in the approaching midterm elections.
Trump himself worked behind the scenes making phone calls to key members and, perhaps more importantly, reined in his public criticism of members of his own party. With just 11 days left in 2017, Republicans from the House and Senate stood on the White House South Lawn and applauded as the president announced the bill would become law.
Trump allowed that he’d learned a thing or two — about the importance of relationships, in particular.
“When I came, I didn’t know too many,” he said Friday of the legislators. “I can call anybody now. I know every one of them very well.”
The sun had not yet risen on July 26 when FBI agents arrived without warning at the front door of Paul Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Va.
Using a search warrant, they emerged from the home of Trump’s former campaign chairman with a trove of material. A new, more dangerous, chapter had begun in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination between the president’s campaign and Russian officials.
The raid was a stark reminder for the White House that, no matter the successes or failures of the moment, the cloud of the Russia probe loomed on the horizon. Trump had grown furious at the distraction, fuming to advisers that he had done nothing wrong while railing that it was a conspiracy by Democrats and the so-called “deep state” to delegitimize his presidency.
Exactly one week before the raid, Trump sat in the Oval Office with reporters from The New York Times and, with little prompting, veered into an attack on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Trump blasted Sessions, once one of his closest allies, for recusing himself from the Russia probe, believing that helped lead to Mueller’s appointment.
Trump continued his assault in a series of tweets in which he called Sessions “weak” and “beleaguered.” Privately, he discussed firing Sessions, but was met with a wave of resistance from his advisers. Some warned it would worsen the Russia probe, while Bannon told the president it would hurt with his base supporters, who loved Sessions’ tough-on-crime approach at the Justice Department.
Kelly, in his first weekend on the job, called Sessions to assure him his position was safe. But the rift between Trump and Sessions still has not healed. Recently, Trump bemoaned the Republicans’ loss in a special election in Alabama and in part blamed Sessions, whose departure from the Senate to head to Justice necessitated the election.
And the Mueller investigation shows no signs of ending.
Scores of top aides and allies, including Kushner and Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., have been questioned by Mueller and congressional investigators. In October, Manafort was charged with money laundering and other financial crimes related to his political consulting work in Ukraine. Several other Trump associates also have been charged by Mueller, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents and is cooperating with the investigation.
Though still shadowed by the probe, Trump emerged from the crucible of the 13 days in July with a more organized and less drama-filled White House, as well as lessons learned that would yield legislative victories.
But the president himself remains unchanged.
Impulsive and unconventional, Trump has spent his first year in office casting aside norms and mores. With his Twitter account as his weapon, the president has shown no willingness to ignore any slight or change the brash ways that he believes got him elected.
“I said with the exception of the late great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office,” Trump told a rally crowd in Ohio on July 25. “It’s so easy to act presidential, but that’s not gonna get it done.”
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