The White House is quietly readying its strategy to mitigate the political fallout once special counsel Robert Mueller wraps up and House Democrats have investigations in full swing, sources tell CNN.
While much of the West Wing is focused on the current battle surrounding the government shutdown, the White House counsel’s office and allied groups outside the White House have begun laying the groundwork for a political and public relations response to Mueller.
One possible model to emulate: the 1998 response of the Clinton White House to the Ken Starr report. They crafted their responses working with a mix of communications, political and legal professionals.
The Trump team plans to follow suit. The administration hasn’t set up a formal war room yet but there are plans to beef up the White House press team to field inquiries related to Mueller and any House Oversight Committee probes, including adding legal expertise. When the White House sets up the war room to respond to any revelations that are made public, the setup is expected to include lawyers from the counsel’s office, communications staffers and an overall point person – similar to the way former White House Counsel Donald McGahn steered Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation.
Up until this point, the White House has referred Russia-related matters to outside counsel, such as Rudy Giuliani, who has been acting as a spokesperson for President Donald Trump on the topic. Giuliani intends to respond to Mueller’s eventual report with a report from the legal team, but it is unclear how else he will be involved once Mueller wraps up his probe. A White House official said the press team has also been in close contact with the White House counsel’s office over the last couple of months in preparation for what’s to come.
William Barr, Trump’s pick for attorney general, said during his confirmation hearing Tuesday that he’s committed to releasing at least some of Mueller’s findings in an attorney general’s report. Still, the White House believes much of Mueller’s report should be protected. The Trump team is preparing a legal fight to keep as much of it as possible under wraps, followed by a public relations plan to aggressively rebut any potentially unseemly revelations involving the President.
One White House official said the counsel’s office already “knows the order of battle” when it comes to the Mueller report.
When it becomes clear that Mueller is preparing to hand his report over to the attorney general, a select group of White House officials will huddle to make decisions about the next steps.
The White House is prepared for the possibility that a congressional committee could issue a subpoena for the Justice Department report, a White House official said. Negotiations would then begin about releasing certain findings, such as a summary of communications between individuals rather than transcripts of those communications. If an agreement can’t be reached, the President could choose to assert executive privilege depending on what’s in the report – and the final arbiter of what happens could be a federal court, according to former prosecutor Mark Tuohey, who has been involved in special counsel investigations.
When it comes to public revelations, the administration is most concerned about any allegations that may directly involve the President.
“They’re prepared to answer to key components of Mueller’s report, as in Russian collusion and obstruction of justice,” said a source close to the White House. But the White House may simply ignore vast swaths of Mueller’s report that pertains to, for instance, Russian troll farms.
“Unless it’s a Trump thing, they ignore anything else,” the source said.
It’s unclear whether such a tailored strategy would be enough to blunt any political fallout. The President’s insistence that he had nothing to do with his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s crimes has done little to shield the White House from the deluge of news coverage on the case. In the case of Trump’s former fixer and attorney Michael Cohen, Trump claimed he wasn’t involved in Cohen’s hush money payments to women – only to then watch Cohen directly implicate Trump in the crime in a federal courtroom.
Already, the White House counsel’s office has embarked on “deep research” into how previous administrations have navigated special counsel probes to determine what went right and what went wrong in the past.
Some in Trump’s orbit have looked favorably on the Clinton White House and the aggressive defense they offered on behalf of then-President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.
“We responded to everything,” said Paul Begala, who served as counselor to Clinton and is now a CNN contributor. But Begala noted that Starr – the independent counsel who led the Clinton investigation – often held news conferences and his team leaked information, giving the White House a clearer indication of where the probe was headed.
The Clinton team tapped a spokesman, separate from the White House press secretary, to field questions about the investigation on an off-camera basis only. The White House also instructed Clinton not to engage on questions about the investigation – a far cry from Trump’s regular airing of grievances over Twitter.
“From a political and PR point of view, they’ve done everything wrong,” Begala said of the Trump White House. “They’ve made Trump their principal spokesman.”
Allied groups, including the Republican National Committee and the Trump reelection campaign, are expected to join in the efforts to defend the President, according to a source familiar with the planning.
The latest planning from the White House and its allies adds to efforts already underway, most notably bolstering the ranks in the counsel’s office. White House counsel Pat Cipollone has already brought on more than a dozen new lawyers.
The additional legal firepower will allow the administration to prepare for a potential fight over executive privilege and also be responsive – if not always amenable – to requests from the new Democratic majority in the House.
Trump’s best defense, though, may ultimately be his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“We didn’t have the external allies, but what we did have – which Trump has – is a united party on the Hill,” Begala said.
The Clinton White House shared its defense strategy and talking points with allied lawmakers who, in turn, publicly defended the President at the time.
“We understood, as we hope Trump does, that his fate is going to be determined by the Congress,” Begala said.
CNN’s Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.