Eye of the Storm
Trump Manages to Not Screw Up for a Day, Stunning His Aides
The president stayed quiet as James Comey bashed him ("Hallelujah," one aide said), and he got on the same page as his team the next morning. Will it last?
President Donald Trump’s aides and White House senior staff were relieved, and quite frankly amazed, that their boss actually managed to keep it together on the day of James Comey’s highly anticipated Senate testimony.
The president didn’t tweet once during the day of the ousted FBI director’s remarks about his and Trump’s private discussions, alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and potential Team Trump collusion with it. And he didn’t even mention Comey’s testimony at a public speech in Washington, D.C., during the third hour of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing.
When Trump finally did get back on Twitter early on Friday morning—he sent a pair of tweets, his first in nearly 48 hours—he was on message.
“Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication...and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” the president wrote, referring to Comey’s admission that he revealed details of their conversations to the press.
One White House official specifically mentioned on Thursday that they were concerned how the president could react online to the next Fox & Friends episode if a Comey-related segment on the show upsets him while he’s unsupervised. The show did cover the hearing on Friday early morning, but Trump only tweeted a bit of praise of how much he loves Fox & Friends’ “reporting.”
White House aides breathed a collective sigh of relief as Comey wrapped up his public testimony in the early afternoon. Not only did the hearing go far better for the president than most expected, but Trump, whose unilateral public outbursts have been a constant source of frustration for White House senior staffers, managed to behave himself and instead let the RNC, outside allies, and his son Don, Jr. attack Comey for him.
“I just hope the lesson sinks in,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “You have your attack dogs. Let them do their thing. Not everything has to be live-tweeted.”
The substance of the hearing was at least a spinnable rhetorical victory for Trump. His attorney Marc Kasowitz and allies at the Republican National Committee, supportive outside political groups and media outlets proclaimed the hearing a vindication of the president’s innocence in the FBI’s Russia probe. They held up the vanquished FBI director’s testimony as proof of the malicious intentions of his adversaries in the political press and the bureaucratic “deep state.”
That assessment makes sense if you ignore Comey’s words.
For the White House, his comparatively muted, basically on-message reaction made the Comey hearing a small but significant victory, unencumbered by the president’s penchant for ill-advised public statements. White House and administration officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, were gleeful on Thursday that the president managed to avoid any public statements that would upend its tenuous rhetorical advantage, a very real concern among Trump’s political inner circle leading up to the televised testimony.
“Legitimately surprised. Impressed. Great. Hallelujah,” one senior aide remarked, reviewing Trump’s modicum of self-control. Another White House official simply messaged The Daily Beast a celebrating raising-hands emoji on Thursday afternoon to denote their relief.
The White House made a point of presenting a veneer of normalcy throughout Comey’s testimony. White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that she wasn’t sure Trump had even watched the hearing.
“It’s a regular Thursday at the White House,” she said. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway claimed “it was business as usual at White House today.”
Sanders, who referred Comey inquires at the briefing to outside counsel, did not respond to further questions about White House reaction to his testimony. But the mood in the West Wing was upbeat, according to another White House staffer.
“I feel like I can finally exhale. The stakes here were massive, and it went about as well as it could’ve,” the senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “The president and his team did a great job keeping their eye on the ball today, going about their business, and not getting distracted by the shiny object on the Hill.”
Trump’s schedule on Thursday included a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian group, that coincided with the tail end of Comey’s testimony. The president’s appearance at the event was scheduled on Tuesday, after the Intelligence Committee had publicly announced Comey’s appearance.
That timing, and Trump’s participation in other events and meetings throughout the day, prevented Trump from watching all of Comey’s testimony, or cable news coverage of the event, and publicly venting his ensuing frustrations. The art of keeping the president doing busy-work has become common practice for Trump’s senior staff to try to keep the president from acting in a self-destructive manner on Twitter, or angrily watching too much cable news.
“They stacked Trump’s schedule today,” another senior Trump administration official said. “He was at a scheduled event but looking at the rest of the day it does seem like they’re keeping him away from the TV.”
Still, advisers and senior staffers know that a quiet, reasonably behaved President Trump only lasts for so long, and might not even outlast this Thursday (at the time of this report, his Twitter feed was dormant). After all, the president never stays off Twitter for long, and doesn’t seem to care about the real-world consequences or self-inflicted wounds. Last month, Trump’s senior aides weighed getting a team of lawyers to vet the @realDonaldTrump tweets in advance to ensure he was not putting himself in a legal or political bind unnecessarily. Attempts to do so failed immediately and miserably.
Given that history, aides were stunned, pleased, but more than a bit wary.
“He did it,” the senior Trump aide said. “Now let’s see what happens in a few hours when he’s bored and alone and the TV is on.”
—Kim Dozier contributed reporting.