Trump fired Comey last week
The back-to-back controversies threatened to further erode the credibility of the White House
As the White House rushed to contain the fallout on Capitol Hill during a head-spinning week of controversies, one senator resorted to mime to describe his reaction.
He mimicked a cat, claws out, hanging on for dear life by clinging to a tree.
“We’re all just like this,” the senator told CNN, shaking his head.
“It’s crazy,” another senator whispered after giving a more diplomatic response about how lawmakers were handling the overwhelming pace of seemingly daily bombshell news developments. “Just crazy.”
On Monday, The Washington Post reported he shared highly classified intelligence with Russian officials. A day later, the White House sought to push back against those reports, dispatching high-ranking administration officials to try containing the fallout.
Before dinnertime on Tuesday, the subject in Washington had changed yet again. But Trump’s advisers could hardly call it a success, with the West Wing suddenly grappling with another firestorm: Whether the President asked FBI Director James Comey to close the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The back-to-back controversies threatened to further erode the credibility of the White House, which was already diminishing. The prospect of more drama – Comey being called to testify, along with confirmation hearings for a new FBI director – could fill the air for weeks or months.
“This weekly scandal, weekly controversy is unhealthy for the country,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, told reporters Tuesday night. “It’s a major distraction for the Congress and it’s just bad for the psyche of every American.”
The White House started the day hoping to “calm Republicans on the Hill,” one administration official said, with national security adviser H.R. McMaster coming to the White House briefing room to repeatedly say the President’s actions were “wholly appropriate.”
Other high-ranking administration officials were assigned specific members of Congress to reach out to, offering individual explanations of the story.
One official described it to CNN as an “all-hands-on-deck” push to correct the record and add context to the latest Trump administration bombshell. Another official describes the full-court press as an example of lessons learned from the firing of Comey, with an effort to swiftly answer as many questions as possible for members of Congress.
The White House calls also extended to other influential voices across Washington, with an urgent mission to try and turn around the story in hopes of minimizing fallout before the President leaves the country on Friday.
But once again, Washington whiplash. The day ended with even more questions about the ability of the President and his advisers to rise above another cloud.
“We have not done ourselves any favors by picking those earlier fights with the intelligence agencies,” one administration official acknowledged to CNN, crestfallen at the seemingly endless controversies facing the White House.
’What more will there be?’
The feedback from Capitol Hill has been brutal, two officials said, with several members of Congress and staffers bluntly offering concern at the notion Trump may have shared classified information. Even before the latest Comey fallout, one administration official described a common refrain from lawmakers as: “Good Lord, it’s one more thing. What more will there be?”
There is rising agitation inside the White House at Thomas Bossert, the President’s homeland security adviser, who was not in the meeting last week with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. One official said Trump and other senior staffers did not plan to “publicly throw him under the bus,” but there is a sense of deep frustration at him for sounding the alarm and “freelancing,” as one official described it, by alerting national security officials to the President’s message to the Russians.
But for all of the finger-pointing and blame-placing inside the White House, the common factor in all of the controversies is the man in the Oval Office. Senior Republicans on Tuesday evening conceded that cracks were beginning to form in the party, with an uncertain path ahead.
The President’s decision to tweet on Tuesday morning, effectively undermining McMaster, took many West Wing advisers by surprise, two officials said, and complicated the explanation process. In hindsight, one official said, McMaster should have taken questions Monday night after his brief statement.
“It would have helped contain the Republican fallout right away,” one official said.
For lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the repercussions from the delayed outreach were apparent Tuesday morning.
Republican senators spent the early part of their day expressing views that ranged from disbelief to annoyance, not solely because of the issue itself and the national security implications, but because they were simply out of the loop, which several made clear.
It wasn’t just rank-and-file Republican senators who hadn’t heard from the White House in the more than 15 hours since story broke. It was committee chairs, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, and perhaps most surprisingly, Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, and other more senior members of the conference.
It was the second time in as many weeks, multiple aides told CNN, where communications staffers were calling between offices trying to figure out who, if anyone, had accurate information, and more importantly, if anyone had an idea of how exactly to respond.
Sen. Marco Rubio, among those who did hear from administration officials on Monday night, answered plainly when he was asked if he’d received any more clarity on what actually occurred in the meeting between Trump and Russian officials.
“No,” Rubio told CNN on Tuesday morning. “We need to talk today – and we will.”
Rubio said he had confidence the administration would eventually provide him with the answers he was seeking, adding: “We’ll see what happens after that.”
The ramifications, as one senior Republican aide described, are that of a domino effect.
Whatever the Trump administration does – whatever the latest crisis, manufactured or otherwise – will immediately be placed on the laps of GOP lawmakers. Every time they walk out of their office they will be met by reporters. Each time they go to vote on the Senate floor or file into a committee hearing, the questions will be lobbed their way.
Yet, this marked another week where there was zero guidance on what exactly was happening – or any ideas on how to respond – from the administration.
As a result, frustrated senators had little incentive to defend an administration that has caused far more headaches than it has cured. And that only serves to create more negative headlines for the administration.
“It’s the equivalent of hanging our guys out to dry,” the aide said, noting that once McMaster took questions just a few hours later, several senators tempered their public concern and criticism.
The lack of ready information, combined with the administration’s inability to move past issues, has led some to raise serious long-term questions about the administration.
“Exhaustion. Frustration. It’s the distinct feeling that they’ll never get their shit together,” another aide said, describing the mood of he sensed from many of his colleagues.
But beyond the simple day-to-day frustration sits a broader, and substantially more significant problem: Republicans are staring at control of both chambers of Congress and White House, with an ambitious agenda conservatives have waited for years to try and implement.
Each day spent answering questions is about the FBI director, or a meeting with Russian officials, or the firing of Michael Flynn, is a day not spent on tax reform, or health care, or remaking the judiciary with new appointments.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, never one to speak without keenly weighing his words, made the same statement twice on Tuesday: “I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House,” he told reporters.
McConnell batted away questions about whether he had lost confidence in the President or whether he could no longer trust the President in handling intelligence with the same clear “No.”
But his overarching point was an understated, yet notable statement being repeated in one iteration or another by lawmakers and aides alike – an ambitious agenda will, at some point, depend on the President to pull it across the finish line, with help from the White House welcome.