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 TrumpChanges in policies, not personalities, will improve perception of corruption in the US Union leader: Bloomberg can go all the way Pelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' 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 GiulianiDonald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim Federal prosecutors advanced Giuliani-linked probe as impeachment concluded: report Moderate Democrats now in a race against the clock MORE to press for investigations by Ukraine. The hearings are likely to receive wall-to-wall coverage on cable news.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 MulvaneyTrump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request Scaramucci thanks John Kelly for speaking up against Trump Trump lashes out over Kelly criticism: 'He misses the action' 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 Mulvaney has since withdrawn from the effort, telling the court he intends to file his own case.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 BoltonBarr back on the hot seat The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in John Bolton defends John Kelly after Trump criticism 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) HaleyLatest Bolton revelations are no game-changer Is Mike Pence preparing to resign, assume the presidency, or both? Judd Apatow urges Georgia voters to get rid of Doug Collins after 'terrorists' comment 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 TillersonTrump lashes out over Kelly criticism: 'He misses the action' Timeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship Top Democrat demands Barr recuse himself from case against Turkish bank 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 PelosiPelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' Trump quotes NY Times article citing Emerson quote about going after the 'king' Overnight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit 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 SchiffDOJ lawyers resign en masse over Roger Stone sentencing George Conway: We might have to impeach Trump again How Lamar Alexander clouds the true meaning of the Constitution MORE (D-Calif.) of releasing “doctored” transcripts, a baseless claim that no Republican has backed up.

White House press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamBarr: Trump's tweets make it 'impossible for me to do my job' Hope Hicks to return to White House Record crowd numbers expected at India cricket stadium for Trump's visit 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 MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium Ex-Ohio State wrestler claims Jim Jordan asked him to deny abuse allegations 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.