The White House’s greatest threat ahead of Comey testimony? Trump, of course
White House staff will be braced on Thursday not only for potentially devastating testimony from James Comey, the former director of the FBI, but for their boss’s blistering responses on Twitter.
Donald Trump might live-tweet during the blockbuster hearing on Capitol Hill, the Washington Post has reported, just as he did when Comey appeared before the House intelligence committee in March.
At a time when White House officials ought to be shoring up defences and digging in, they instead find themselves scrambling to clean up one self-inflicted crisis after another. Plans for a so-called “war room” to deal with the Russia investigation appear to have collapsed, and four top law firms have reportedly turned down offers to represent Trump.
“If they’re mounting a united front, they’d better get moving,” said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist. “I’m not even sure they know where the front is.”
Thursday’s hour of reckoning at the Senate intelligence committee could be a turning point in the saga of Russia and last year’s presidential election. Comey is likely to be asked whether Trump pressured him to quash an investigation into the former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s links with Moscow, which could be tantamount to obstruction of justice. It is a national spectacle that will be covered by the big three TV networks but, unlike during past landmark hearings such as Watergate in 1973, Iran-Contra in 1987 and Clarence Thomas’s supreme court confirmation in 1991, the current president can fight back with his mobile phone.
Trump has 31.7 million followers on Twitter and, the Washington Post reported, about 93.1 million followers across all his social media accounts (not the 110 million claimed by White House press secretary Sean Spicer).
Even by his own wayward standards, Trump has gone rogue on Twitter this week, causing potential legal problems by using the term “travel ban”, lashing out at the mayor of London after a terrorist attack and criticising Qatar, a US ally, over terrorism. The impulsive barrage has derailed his team’s efforts to regain balance by devoting the week to an ambitious infrastructure programme while redirecting questions on the Russia investigation to an outside lawyer.
On Thursday, Trump will hold more meetings on infrastructure and address religious conservatives at a conference in Washington, making for a potentially dramatic split TV screen with Comey. “The president’s got a full day on Thursday,” Spicer told reporters. “The president’s going to have a very, very busy day and, as he does all the time, I think his focus is going to be on pursuing the agenda and priorities that he was elected to do.”
But the potential for disruptive, legally unvetted tweets remains. Galen observed: “That’s what he does. We all know people who don’t have the filter when it comes into your head and it doesn’t have to come out of your mouth. With Trump, it comes into his head and it has to come out in his fingers and phone.”
Galen dismissed the notion that the president could be deliberately using Twitter to distract attention from his other troubles. “I don’t think Trump has a strategic bone in his body. He is all tactical all the time.”
Trump abruptly fired Comey last month, starting a chain reaction that led the justice department to name a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to lead its investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The president’s chief lawyer in charge of the case is Marc Kasowitz, a civil litigator who has long worked for Trump in business and public relations disputes in New York but has little experience in Washington.
Hopes of reinforcements have been dashed, however. Top lawyers with at least four major law firms have turned down requests to represent Trump, Michael Isikoff, a leading investigative journalist, reported on Tuesday. The lawyers cited a number of reasons, ranging from prior commitments and conflicts of interest to anxieties that the president would be unwilling to heed their advice or tarnish their public image, Isikoff wrote for Yahoo News.
He told MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show: “It was extraordinary that there was concern about reputational risk to their firms. Would taking on the representation of Donald Trump, such a polarising figure, kill recruitment of top-notch legal talent coming out of law firms, or how would it play with their existing clients? And that’s really an extraordinary thing when you’re talking about representing the president of the United States.”
The mood in the White House has reportedly plummeted and taken on an “it’s us against the world” quality in recent weeks. There were said to be plans for a “war room” – modelled on Bill Clinton’s rapid response unit that dealt with Monica Lewinsky-related inquiries – involving Trump campaign veterans such as David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski. But the process has been bogged down by a lack of decision-making over how to proceed, the Associated Press reported, as well as reluctance from would-be recruits about serving a president who is his own worst enemy.
Rick Tyler, a political analyst and co-founder of consulting firm Foundry Strategies, said: “I keep hearing there’s a war room but I never hear any more details about it. I don’t get the sense this is a White House united in purpose or direction because it doesn’t know which way is up most days. The president routinely undermines his own talking points and his own communications staff. You can only do that for so long until trust is worn down and it becomes a farce.”
Tyler warned that Trump is in for a rough ride if Comey views this as a moment of reckoning. “I think I saw [Senator] Roy Blunt subtly try to undermine Comey’s credibility but I’m not sure it’s going to work. When it comes to truth and credibility, I think Comey has a huge advantage there. This is going to be a test of who’s telling the truth.”
The former FBI director’s testimony is likely to be another divisive moment in partisan Washington. Trump’s critics are unsurprised by the chaotic preparations at the White House. Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive group Democracy for America, said: “We have a president who is such a megalomaniac he just can’t stop himself. He has to spill his political vomit as far as he can.”
He added: “This is an incredibly corrupt, dangerous administration and the only way to hold it accountable is to begin impeachment proceedings.”