Digging in for long haul, Trump hits mute
Posted June 8
One minute before noon Thursday, just as the FBI director he fired was imploring him on national television to release secret tapes of their White House meetings, President Donald Trump strode from the Oval Office to his idling car and was whisked from the South Lawn.
On the surface at least, it was business as usual for Trump, who was due to deliver a speech to a gathering of Christian conservatives at a hotel across town.
Inside the building he was departing, however, and across the city he traversed, the outlines of a new reality were emerging.
The old standbys of a scandal-gripped Washington -- hired lawyers delivering statements far from the White House, day-long stakeouts outside officials' homes, non-answers in the White House briefing room -- were dusted off, with little expectation they will be packed up soon.
For the President and his aides, the spectacle on Capitol Hill Thursday amounted to less of a climax and more of an opening act in a show almost everyone believes won't close soon. Neither entirely vindicating nor wholly indicting, Comey's testimony instead just led to more questions for a President who has prepared himself for prolonged battle.
Trump, according to people familiar with his thinking, has braced for many more months of circus-like hearings, damaging leaks and salacious revelations related to his campaign's ties to Russia. Furious by a controversy he regards as threatening his legitimacy, Trump has dug in.
"We're under siege," Trump declared at the evangelical conference, referring to the religious right but nonetheless summarizing his bunker state of mind. "But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever."
At the White House, the day began with relative optimism. Aides who entered the week uneasy about what Comey might say during his hotly anticipated testimony were cheered by an advance statement that contained, in their minds, little new information about the President's interactions with the former FBI director.
On Wednesday night, Marc Kasowitz -- the lawyer Trump hired to handle the Russia investigation -- was seen at the Trump hotel celebrating by buying a box of cigars.
"We won. Trump's in the clear," Kasowitz was overheard saying, according to two sources. "It's clear Trump didn't do anything wrong."
Afterward, White House officials offered similarly upbeat assessments of the testimony, which was carried on almost every major television network.
"For all of the hype this is the equivalent of Geraldo opening Al Capone's vault," said one senior White House official, referencing the 1986 hyped TV special where journalist Geraldo Rivera discovered nothing in what supposed to be a secret hiding place of gangster Al Capone. "I think Geraldo opening the vault was more impactful."
"For all of the hype that this was to be explosive, nothing new has been learned," the official said.
That assessment wasn't shared by Democrats or many legal observers, who argued that Comey's descriptions of his meetings with Trump -- during which Comey claims Trump asked him to pledge loyalty and end a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn -- amount to obstruction of justice.
Comey made those assertions under oath, but Trump's lawyer said Thursday they were false. It's not a dispute that will be easily resolved, meaning the questions will continue to linger over Trump and his White House.
With the long-term reality of the Russia controversy in mind, Trump's advisers took steps to make Thursday appear routine, despite the tsunami of anticipation around Comey's appearance before the Senate intelligence panel. Their primary target: Trump himself, who they hoped could be coaxed into letting the testimony proceed without a real-time response on Twitter.
Aides and advisers had wondered before Comey's testimony if their boss would react to the display. Before the event began, some administration officials warned that Trump would be watching the hearing along with the rest of the country.
Twitter, they acknowledged with trepidation, is never far from the President's fingers when he's watching television.
On Thursday morning, Trump's outside legal team did convene in the West Wing as the testimony got underway. Trump himself was stationed in his private dining room, steps from the Oval Office, to watch on his large flat-screen television as a stone-faced Comey was sworn in.
But instead of settling in, Trump decamped for the Oval Office, where he met for national security discussions with his team about North Korea and an unraveling situation in the Arab Gulf. Sean Spicer, Trump's press secretary, said the President did not watch much of Comey's testimony, only catching clips between his meeting, which lasted almost until the president was on his way to the evangelical speech.
He did not offer online commentary to the cable news coverage, and when he was questioned about the testimony during an infrastructure meeting with mayors and governors, he declined to answer.
A White House aide said Trump's advisers, including Kasowitz, convinced him that responding on Twitter could undercut their ability to defend him to the public. But the aide warned an outburst could come later, after Trump consults with his large network of friends outside the White House.
Staffers nonetheless exhaled with a certain amount of relief after Comey concluded his three-hour grilling without any major new revelations about the Trump campaign's connections to Russia. They were equally relieved the President didn't offer any angry reactions before they could vet his language.
Instead, the machinery Trump set up to respond to the Russia questions kicked into gear. In a plain conference room at the National Press Club, several blocks from the White House, Kasowitz read from a prepared statement that accused Comey of leaking classified information about his interactions with the President.
Trump's own White House staff insisted that life was proceeding as planned.
"In terms of the mood in the White House, I would say that it's a regular Thursday at the White House," principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during an off-camera briefing. "We're carrying on."
Still, several senior Republican operatives noted that no matter how the White House tries to spin it, the fact the former FBI director is testifying about his conversations with the President presents terrible optics.
"It is hard to see this being viewed through any prism that this is good for Trump," said a senior Republican operative with ties to the Republican leadership. "This is bad. It is all bad."
Another GOP consultant expressed frustration at how the President and his administration has handled this situation.
"There is no way anyone in the White House can be looking at this, the (former) FBI director is on national television undermining the credibility of the president of the United States, in a way Americans haven't seen, certainly this generation hasn't seen since the Watergate hearings," the consultant said.