White House Will Battle Comey Without a War Room

An army of one. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Suppose they gave a war room and nobody came? The Trump White House is about to find out.

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration began putting together an in-house, rapid-response team of top-shelf legal and crisis communications talent. As the Russia investigation continued kicking up bad headlines, this “war room” would vigorously defend Trump in the court of public opinion — while preventing him from saying anything that might hurt him in a different kind of court.

It would be motley crew of white-shoe lawyers and feral dogs. Among the latter would be Corey Lewandowski, the former campaign manager who had too little respect for women, the press, and his subordinates to make it in an enterprise run by Donald Trump. David Bossie, legendary slayer of Clintons and campaign finance laws, would also be throwing punches. And their team would be kept on a (long) leash by some of the top legal minds in the country — maybe Paul Clement and Mark Filip of Kirkland & Ellis, or Ted Olson, winner of Bush v. Gore.

The necessity of such mercenaries became plain last week, when James Comey agreed to publicly testify about Trump’s attempts to interfere with his investigations. Now, 48 hours before the former FBI director spills the beans to the Senate Intelligence Committee — and to the viewers of every major broadcast network — Trump’s warriors are surely practicing their battle formations.

Or they would be. If any had decided to enlist. As Axios’s Mike Allen reports:

With CNN’s clock already counting down to fired FBI Director Jim Comey’s testimony on Thursday morning, where’s the White House war room? … I’m told that the inside-outside machinery, as envisioned by aides who frantically planned it while Trump finished his overseas trip, may never exist. Top Republicans say the White House has been unable to lure some of the legal and rapid-response talent they had been counting on.

… Reasons include some power lawyers’ reluctance to work with/for lead Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz; resistance by Kasowitz to more cooks in his kitchen; and lack of confidence that Trump would stick to advice. Some prospects worry about possible personal legal bills, and are skeptical Trump can right the ship.

Politico offers a somewhat different narrative:

The president decided that Bossie and Lewandowski would be “more valuable on the outside than on the inside fighting back against the Russia narrative specifically,” said a person with knowledge of the conversations … The president’s senior aides — and the president himself — were never able to reach an agreement on how a war room would function and who Bossie and Lewandowski would report to inside the White House.

But the idea that Trump couldn’t find willing soldiers is buttressed by recent history, common sense, and a report from Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff.

First, let’s talk history: Trump gave his communications team an hour’s notice of his decision to fire the FBI director who was leading an investigation into his campaign. That team promptly cobbled together a narrative that minimized the relevance of said investigation, and Trump literally signed on to the story: namely, that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had pushed for Comey’s ouster, due to the FBI’s mishandling of the Clinton email investigation.

Then, Trump went on national television and said Rosenstein was irrelevant, and that he personally decided to fire Comey while reflecting on his disgust for the investigation into his campaign — a statement that (arguably) constituted a confession to obstruction of justice. The president also tried to intimidate Comey into silence by threatening to release secret recordings of their conversations — a tweet that functioned as an open invitation for subpoenas and, reportedly, as inspiration for many of Comey’s friends to start talking to reporters.

Trump proceeded to chastise his communications team for their incompetence.

And the president did all of this while knowing that he had asked the FBI director, point blank, to drop an investigation into his former national security adviser. Once Team Comey leaked word of that request, it didn’t take long for a special prosecutor to be appointed, and, thus, for a large swath of the White House staff to be saddled with the cost of securing legal advice.

Who would want to run crisis communications for such a boss?

On Monday, the president published a series of tweets that directly undermined the White House’s messaging strategy — and legal case — for his embattled executive order restricting immigration from the Muslim world. Adding insult to injury, the tweets criticized the Justice Department for releasing a revised, “politically correct” version of that executive order — as though Trump, himself, had not signed the rule.

Who would want to provide legal services for such a client?

The answer to both these questions is virtually no one. Last week, George Conway (husband to Kellyanne) withdrew his name from consideration for a post in the Justice Department’s Civil Division. Conway appeared to find validation for that decision in Monday’s tweets.

Late last month, Deputy Treasury Secretary nominee Jim Donovan also backed out, after suddenly realizing that a White House gig would require him to spend less time with his family. The primary reason why Reince Priebus remains chief of staff, according to reports, is that nobody wants his job.

Given its inability to attract talent to some of the most (traditionally) desirable, full-time posts in the U.S. government, it shouldn’t be surprising that the White House has struggled to find worthwhile freelancers. As Isikoff reports:

Top lawyers with at least four major law firms rebuffed White House overtures to represent President Trump in the Russia investigations, in part over concerns that the president would be unwilling to listen to their advice, according to five sources familiar with discussions about the matter.

…“The concerns were, ‘The guy won’t pay and he won’t listen,’” said one lawyer close to the White House who is familiar with some of the discussions between the firms and the administration, as well as deliberations within the firms themselves.

Other factors, the lawyer said, were that it would “kill recruitment” for the firms to be publicly associated with representing the polarizing president and jeopardize the firms’ relationships with other clients.

Another lawyer briefed on some of the discussions agreed that the firms were worried about the reputational risk of representing the president. One issue that arose, this lawyer said, was “Do I want to be associated with this president and his policies?” In addition, the lawyer said, there were concerns that if they took on the case, “who’s in charge?” and “would he listen?”

This all bodes poorly for Trump’s prospects of containing the fallout from Thursday’s testimony. But it also bodes poorly for our country’s prospects of escaping the next four years with minimal scarring. The president has only named candidates for 117 of his administration’s top 559 positions. America has entered hurricane season without a FEMA director, and a period of heightened terrorism in Western Europe with no permanent head of the FBI.

So long as Trump remains ensconced in the Oval Office, his human-resources crisis will be our own.

White House Will Battle Comey Without a War Room