White House struggles to get in sync on impeachment

A White House that has repeatedly struggled to get in sync is sending messages of disharmony days before the first televised public impeachment hearings, which are expected to highlight the divide in the administration over President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he will 'temporarily hold off' on declaring Mexican drug cartels as terror organization House Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Artist behind gold toilet offered to Trump sells banana duct-taped to a wall for 0,000 MORE's efforts in Ukraine.

The scattershot White House messaging and strategy is nothing new in and of itself. GOP lawmakers and some outside allies have repeatedly criticized the administration for failing to get on the same page.

But things don't appear to be improving in the hours before House committees prepare to receive public testimony from officials who are expected to offer damaging accounts of efforts by the president’s personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTrump denies report that he still uses personal cell phone for calls Giuliani draws attention with latest trip to Ukraine White House, OMB say no calls between Giuliani and budget office MORE to press for investigations by Ukraine. The hearings are likely to receive wall-to-wall coverage on cable news.

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Trump’s use of his own megaphone to drive the message against impeachment has at times undermined arguments coming from his White House and Republican allies on Capitol Hill.

And in a confusing move, Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyGiuliani meets with fired Ukrainian prosecutor who pushed Biden, 2016 claims: report Fox's Napolitano says obstruction 'easiest' impeachment offense for Democrats The key impeachment hearings are before an appeals court, not the House Judiciary panel MORE, on Friday tried to join a lawsuit that names Trump — his boss — as one of the defendants. The lawsuit, filed by former National Security Council official Charles Kupperman, sought a court order on whether he must comply with a congressional subpoena. 

Kupperman opposed Mulvaney's effort in a filing Monday. Mulvaney has since withdrawn from the effort, telling the court he intends to file his own case. 

The move came absent explanation from the White House and marked a different approach from other executive branch officials who have defied subpoenas without seeking a court’s judgment. Mulvaney, viewed as a central figure in the administration’s decisions with respect to Ukraine, evaded a subpoena for testimony last week.

Jack Sharman, a white-collar criminal defense attorney and former special counsel to Congress during the Whitewater investigation, said Mulvaney seemed to be acting as “an individual” and doubted it came as part of a broader, concerted strategy by the White House.

“The more advisable course would be presumably for the White House counsel’s office and maybe the Office of Legal Counsel at DOJ to weigh in more for institutional reasons rather than having individual staff members, however senior, seek guidance on their own accord,” he said.

The impeachment process itself has laid bare the fractures within the White House, something public testimony this week is likely to further underscore.

Newly released testimony has shown how then-national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonThe shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley The key impeachment hearings are before an appeals court, not the House Judiciary panel Beyond the myth of Sunni-Shia wars in the Middle East MORE was deeply critical of Mulvaney’s involvement in the Trump administration’s foreign policy machinations toward Ukraine. Bolton described Mulvaney as participating in a “drug deal” with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.

Fiona Hill, a former Russia expert for Trump’s National Security Council, described butting heads with Sondland when he asserted authority over Ukraine matters.

And officials who testified in recent weeks overwhelmingly expressed unease with the involvement of Giuliani in the administration’s dealings with Ukraine.

Revelations about those fights shared space with stories about a new book from former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyHaley: Dylann Roof 'hijacked' Confederate flag Trump: Kellyanne Conway 'must have done some bad things' to 'crazy' husband Trump says Pence will remain on 2020 ticket: 'He's our man 100 percent' MORE that says she refused to take part in efforts by former chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE and former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonReport: Trump UK ambassador fired deputy for mentioning Obama in speech Overnight Defense: Ex-Navy secretary slams Trump in new op-ed | Impeachment tests Pompeo's ties with Trump | Mexican president rules out US 'intervention' against cartels Pompeo-Trump relationship tested by impeachment inquiry MORE to go around Trump.

While the Haley allegations said little about the specific impeachment charges confronting Trump, they highlighted how officials within the administration have often been at odds with one another and that some officials working with Trump were uncomfortable with his decisions or policies.

In preparation for the public phase of impeachment, the White House has brought on former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) and former Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh to lead communications efforts on impeachment, but Trump’s own comments over the last week call into question how much that will matter.

One former White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity argued the messaging out of the White House has improved in recent days and that there hasn’t been a major error since Mulvaney’s October press conference during which he undermined a key talking point by acknowledging a quid pro quo in the administration’s interactions with Ukraine.

“It does seem like they’ve kind of gotten a little sharper with their messaging and a little more aggressive in the last week or so,” the former official said. “Realistically speaking, it’s going to be a scattered approach.”

Republicans have complained for weeks about the lack of cohesion in the White House messaging apparatus. Trump’s own difficult-to-predict statements have only highlighted those concerns.

On Friday, Trump declared there should not be public hearings because he believes the impeachment inquiry is a “hoax.” The comment cut against a concerted effort among Republicans on Capitol Hill and advisers at the White House to criticize the lack of transparency in the process thus far.

Trump on Saturday suggested Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills MORE (D-Calif.) be called to testify in the impeachment inquiry, an unrealistic request that may have detracted from the actual Republican witness list.

The president on Monday accused House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTrump denies report that he still uses personal cell phone for calls Schiff asks Pence to declassify more material from official's testimony Schiff: Impeachment testimony shows Trump 'doesn't give a shit' about what's good for the country MORE (D-Calif.) of releasing “doctored” transcripts, a baseless claim that no Republican has backed up.

White House press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamFewer Americans following impeachment inquiry, poll shows Appeals court hands Trump partial win over 'public charge' rule for immigrants Trump blasts Pelosi's impeachment announcement MORE on Monday said the White House and House Republicans who will be able to question witnesses are “on the same page,” but did not offer specifics on how or whether they had coordinated.

Still, some allies point to Trump’s ability to evade significant political consequences during former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE’s investigation as proof that there may be a method to the president’s mercurial tendencies.

“When you look at his ability to push back on the Russia narrative ... I don’t want to say he was a one-man operation, but he almost single-handedly did that with a small handful of capable surrogates,” said one source with direct knowledge of the president’s thinking. “That being said, this is a little different.”

The White House or the campaign is expected to begin circulating talking points to television surrogates as hearings get underway, according to a person familiar with the plans.

Current and former officials also pointed to the addition of Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTrump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ohio) to the House Intelligence Committee as a potentially significant development for the president’s defense. Jordan is one of Trump’s fiercest defenders and will now be able to question witnesses during public hearings.

Some outside allies of the president have also sought to step in to help. Former chief strategist Stephen Bannon launched a podcast to take matters into his own hands to bolster the defense of the president, and Giuliani is reportedly considering doing the same.

Current and former Trump advisers have highlighted those outside efforts as evidence there is plenty of support to go around as the president faces down the most consequential fight of his time in office.

“I think whether it’s Steve or anyone else, I think the more soldiers the president has fighting on his behalf, the better it is for the president,” said the former White House official. “It’s all hands on deck.”

—Updated at 7:05 p.m.