President Trump's White House is struggling with how to respond to the ever-growing Ukraine scandal as the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry is set to take depositions from key witnesses this week.
Instead of defending Trump from inside the White House, all signs suggest that Trump's reelection campaign will take an outsize role in pushing back on his impeachment aggressively — and with millions of dollars behind it.
Talking to reporters on Friday about the scandal, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway blurted out a truth about the White House's apparatus to defend Trump.
"I'm like the only person out here taking your questions," said Conway, whose job doesn't even technically include being a spokesperson for the White House.
But in an administration where the president views himself as his own best messenger, Trump has been the loudest voice defending his actions. Over the weekend, he tweeted about the Ukraine scandal and impeachment more than 80 times.
It's a stark contrast to the last time a president was impeached. Facing impeachment in 1998, then-President Bill Clinton had a "war room" of lawyers and communications professionals doing battle for him in real time, aggressively pushing back on the House Republicans who ultimately impeached him but did not remove him from office.
The Trump White House currently has no similar operation set up, which Conway insists isn't needed. "Why do we need an impeachment war room when the other people have the burden of showing why they're impeaching the president?"
NBC reported Sunday that top White House officials, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, are set to present plans to Trump for how to defend him this week, but press secretary Stephanie Grisham told NPR, "the NBC story is wrong."
"I'm not sure this White House is prepared"
The Trump White House communications operation is sparsely staffed compared to past administrations, even compared to earlier in the Trump administration. Grisham wears three hats, including communications director and chief spokesperson for first lady Melania Trump.
"I think this is just the beginning and I'm not sure this White House is prepared for it," said Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax and an informal adviser to President Trump, in an interview with All Things Considered last week. "It doesn't have the communication staff for the response that's going to be necessary for an impeachment ordeal. It's six committees opening guns up on the president. There's staff that still needs to be appointed in the White House. It's just not a good situation."
In the White House counsel's office, the lawyer with significant impeachment expertise, Emmett Flood, left after the conclusion of the Mueller report. And there's no indication that President Trump's outside legal team, in place to deal with the Russia probe, is bulking up for the rapidly intensifying House impeachment inquiry.
"Well, I thought we won. I thought it was dead," Trump said on Thursday. "The Mueller report — no obstruction, no collusion."
"This is a political issue, not really a legal one," said Jay Sekulow, who has been heading up Trump's private legal team. "The lawyers involved need to have some political savvy, and the team that we have in place are prepared to meet any inquiries appropriately."
Another of Trump's lawyers who was helping him deal with the Mueller investigation is Rudy Giuliani, who is deeply involved in the Ukraine matter. Giuliani's name appears repeatedly in the July 25 call at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
In the Clinton White House, the "war room" was part of an effort to wall off the president and his policy agenda from the impeachment conflagration threatening to consume his presidency.
"We would have 75% of the staff remain focused on policy during the impeachment proceedings," said Jennifer Palmieri, who worked in the Clinton White House during impeachment. "And it was that focus on doing his job that kept him afloat."
But it isn't 1998 and Donald Trump isn't Bill Clinton. While Clinton's trademark was policy, Trump's presidency has been characterized by a string of feuds and fights with everyone from professional football players to "the squad" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Battling is an end in itself, and impeachment is the biggest battle of them all.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who has advised the White House, says impeachment is going to be the No. 1 issue in Washington over the next several months and will inevitably consume the Trump White House.
"This is it; this is all hands on deck," he said, adding that it will be the same for Democrats.
"The campaign is the amplifier"
Unlike Clinton and former President Richard Nixon, who both dealt with impeachment in their second terms, Trump is facing this inquiry in the midst of reelection. Trump has claimed that the House investigation will help his campaign by solidifying his base.
A person familiar with the campaign's thinking says they do not welcome impeachment but will be able to lean on the campaign to defend Trump and shore up his base.
While the Clinton impeachment "war room" was on the White House grounds, for Trump it's in his campaign headquarters in a high-rise office building in northern Virginia. There are researchers, surrogates and a rapid response team, boosting Trump's message. There's even a Twitter account called "Trump War Room."
"The campaign is the amplifier," the person said. "This is what it does."
Evidence of this came over the weekend when the Trump campaign, along with the Republican National Committee, announced a combined $10 million cable ad buy. The ads go after former Vice President Joe Biden and House Democrats and are an attempt to sway public opinion as the impeachment inquiry gets going. It's not clear yet how saturated the airwaves will be, but it is a significant buy.
"This ad buy is just the beginning of an all-out fight to defend our democracy and our President," RNC Chairman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
Bonjean, who is also a Republican veteran of the Clinton impeachment battle, said to expect millions more to be unleashed in the coming months, putting pressure on lawmakers and amplifying voter anxiety and fatigue along the way.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has been listening in. Tam, good morning.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: How do Congressman Harris' comments fit in with what other Republicans are saying?
KEITH: Well - so Congressman Harris is very much in line with the talking points that the White House sent around last week after releasing the letter. Incidentally, they accidentally also sent those talking points to Democrats. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was on "60 Minutes" last night. He was attempting to make this same argument. But some of these talking points just aren't tethered to reality. What I'm hearing from Republicans close to the White House who don't want to go on tape is that they do consider the call improper but just not impeachable.
INSKEEP: OK. So they're making a much more limited defense of the president. What is the president himself saying?
KEITH: Well, as you say, he has tweeted some 80 times - more than 80 times over the weekend. And in a couple of those tweets, he goes very far. He accused a member of Congress of treason, said he wanted access to the whistleblower - even though there are whistleblower protections in place. Another one quoted someone as saying impeachment would lead to civil war. That's pretty extreme, even by the standards of President Trump, and also way outside of the norms of past presidential conduct.
But in terms of the White House - you know, in 1998, President Clinton, his White House had a war room set up with communications professionals and lawyers going to bat for him. Late last week, Kellyanne Conway, who is a counselor to the president, was speaking to the reporters on the White House driveway. She was asked whether President Trump needs a war room.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KELLYANNE CONWAY: Why would he do that? Who's - who started the war here? He's the most battle-tested person I've ever met. Why do we need an impeachment war room when - when the other people have the burden of showing why they're impeaching the president?
KEITH: So what she's alluding to is also just that President Trump is all about the battle. He's all about picking fights or being part of fights. And people I talked to expect that the White House is going to be consumed by this, that there will be no carving out of policy.
INSKEEP: The Oval Office is the war room, I suppose.
KEITH: Indeed - or wherever the tweets come from.
INSKEEP: And then there's the question of who else will be defending the president. Who will be in his corner?
KEITH: Well - so here's the thing. This is the first time that you have a president running for re-election who's now facing an impeachment inquiry. And he has a campaign. His campaign even has a war room. And the Trump campaign and the RNC, over the weekend, launched a $10 million ad buy. You can expect for there - they will have surrogates out there; they will be doing rapid response. So in some ways, the war room is also the Trump campaign. It's one and the same. This is an existential fight for President Trump.
INSKEEP: Tamara, thanks for the context in your reporting. Really appreciate it.
KEITH: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.