The White House is in full attack mode just a few days before former FBI Director James Comey’s highly anticipated testimony on Capitol Hill.
President Trump’s aides fanned out across the networks to rip Comey as an incompetent FBI director, sparred with news anchors and defended Trump on everything from the controversial immigration executive order to his response to the weekend terrorist attack in England.
The president started off the week with a blizzard of tweets that ignited battles with the mayor of London, the media, Democrats and his own Justice Department.
Meanwhile, the administration flooded the zone with new policy initiatives. The White House held two background briefings with reporters in an effort to steer coverage toward Trump’s legislative agenda, even as anticipation over Comey’s testimony on Thursday dominated the political world.
The president announced plans to separate air traffic control from the federal government as part of a broader push to modernize the country’s infrastructure. Trump will travel to Ohio on Wednesday — a day before Comey’s testimony — to draw attention to the state’s crumbling waterway system. It’s part of the administration’s “Infrastructure Week” push, though it’s unlikely to be remembered as such by Friday.
Monday’s press briefing at the White House began with a surprise appearance from Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin, who announced an overhaul of the VA’s electronic records system.
Shulkin’s remarks served the dual purpose of cutting into the amount of time deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had to field questions from angry reporters, who pressed her about Comey and whether Trump had politicized the weekend terror attack in London.
At Monday’s briefing, the White House also made news by announcing Trump will allow Comey to testify and will not invoke executive privilege, removing a cloud of questions that hung over the administration for days.
Yet it remains to be seen how the White House will deal with Comey, whom Trump called a “showboat” and “grandstander” after the FBI director was fired last month. Will Trump or the White House communications team respond in real time to Comey’s public testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee? Or will Trump try to divert the news media’s attention to something else, which he did regularly on the campaign trail?
Trump’s schedule for Thursday has not yet been released.
In a sign that the White House is girding for a battle with the ousted FBI chief, White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway hammered Comey in an appearance on “The Today Show” for having to amend his remarks the last time he testified before Congress.
She urged viewers to read Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo on Comey, which the Trump administration originally used as justification for his firing.
Conway argued that under Comey, “integrity and morale were down” at the FBI and he had “usurped” power from then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch by recommending that no charges be brought against Democratic presidential nominee for mishandling classified information.
“You’re not supposed to hold a press availability and announce why they decided not to prosecute Hillary Clinton,” Conway said.
“Of course, the president supported those actions by Comey at the time,” “Today Show” host Savannah Guthrie shot back.
The administration’s policy push will continue on Tuesday, when Trump will huddle with congressional leaders at the White House to discuss his legislative agenda and how to pass an ObamaCare replacement bill, which is stuck with dimming prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Trump’s allies, many of whom have worried that the White House has allowed the Comey-Russia storyline to spin out of control, are heartened by what they see as a renewed sense of focus.
Some had been frustrated last week, believing the White House appeared rudderless and caught on its heels in the debate over whether it intended to pull out of the Paris climate accord.
“Better to be on offense than on defense,” said one GOP operative with close ties to the White House.
Still, the administration’s proactive posture may have been undermined by the president, whose flurry of Monday morning tweets dominated cable news shows.
For the second day in a row, Trump lashed out at London Mayor Sadiq Khan in the wake of a terrorist attack on the city.
Trump alleged that Khan had said there was “no need to be alarmed” by the attack. Khan had told Londoners there was no need to be alarmed by the increased police presence in the streets as authorities carried out raids on suspected terrorist hideouts.
The dispute provoked a response from British Prime Minister Theresa May, who faces an election on Thursday.
“Sadiq Khan is doing a good job,” May said. “It’s wrong to say anything else.”
Trump refused to back down and instead accused the mainstream media of downplaying the terror attack and covering for the London mayor.
At Monday’s press briefing, Sanders had to beat back a flurry of questions from reporters who accused the White House of intentionally mischaracterizing Khan’s remarks. One reporter asked if Trump went after the London mayor because he is a Muslim.
“I think to suggest something like that is utterly ridiculous,” Sanders said.
Trump had already been under fire from the media for weighing in on the London attack before British officials had released an official response.
And Trump put his administration in another tough spot by using the term “travel ban” four times over Twitter to describe his executive order aimed at temporarily halting immigration from six Muslim-majority countries.
Legal experts — including Conway’s husband — indicated Monday that Trump’s call for a tougher version of the executive order could undermine his administration’s effort to reinstate the controversial policy, which has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
George Conway, who last week announced he was pulling his name out of consideration for a top job at the Justice Department, tweeted Monday: “[Trump’s] tweets may make some ppl feel better, but they certainly won’t help [the solicitor general] get 5 votes in [the Supreme Court], which is what actually matters. Sad.”
He later tweeted that he strongly supports his wife and the president.
Trump on Monday via Twitter chided his own Justice Department for not advocating for a stronger ban in the first place, leading reporters to ask whether Trump supports his own executive order.
“Absolutely,” Sanders responded.
“I don’t think the president cares what you call it, whether you call it a ban, whether you call it a restriction,” Sanders continued. “He cares that we call it national security and that we take steps to protect the people of this country. It’s real simple. Everybody wants to get into the labels and the semantics of it.”