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 TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate 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 GiulianiCapitol insurrection hearing exposes Trumpworld delusions DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's riot lawsuit Bob Dole: 'I'm a Trumper' but 'I'm sort of Trumped out' 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 MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' 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 Mulvaney has since withdrawn from the effort, telling the court he intends to file his own case.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 BoltonWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Will Pence primary Trump — and win? Bolton: Trump lacked enough 'advance thinking' for a coup 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 HaleyNikki HaleyWill Pence primary Trump — and win? Noem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis 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 TillersonWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump House passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet 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 PelosiManchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Kinzinger supports Jan. 6 panel subpoenas for Republicans, including McCarthy Ocasio-Cortez: Democrats can't blame GOP for end of eviction moratorium 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 SchiffA new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign Officers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Calif.) of releasing “doctored” transcripts, a baseless claim that no Republican has backed up.

White House press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamJill Biden appears on Vogue cover Kayleigh McEnany joins Fox News as co-host of 'Outnumbered' Melania Trump says she was 'disappointed and disheartened' watching Capitol riots 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) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 JordanKinzinger supports Jan. 6 panel subpoenas for Republicans, including McCarthy Jordan acknowledges talking to Trump on Jan. 6 AP Fact Check rates GOP claim Pelosi blocked National Guard on Jan. 6 'false' 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.