White House’s Russia ‘War Room’ Built on Ticking Time Bomb
The West Wing is launching a new operation to fight back against the Russia scandals. Now, if only the president and his tweets could stop getting in the way.
But officials tell The Daily Beast the biggest obstacle to the crisis-management plan is often the president himself—and that his penchant for tweeting doesn’t help, either.
Officials say it matters little how effective the West Wing’s new crisis outfit is if the president continues publicly and aggressively undercutting the official White House narrative.
“It’s a seemingly impossible task,” one senior administration official involved with the process noted. “A disproportionate amount of our time has been spent reacting to ill-advised tweets.”
This week, multiple outlets reported on the formation of the so-called Russia “war room” as Trump wrapped up his high-profile foreign trip. White House sources confirmed to The Daily Beast that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon have laid the groundwork for the shop, but that the staff and operation are still taking shape.
Priebus and Bannon will be overseeing its general strategy, but ground-level operations will be managed by other senior White House communications hands, according to a source familiar with the West Wing’s plans.
The source said two aides in particular are slated to be involved in the “war room” effort: Cliff Sims, the director of White House message strategy, and deputy policy strategist Andrew Surabian. Neither responded to questions about these roles.
Surabian, one of Bannon’s closest aides, is the former political director of the Tea Party Express and the manager of retired Air Force colonel Rob Maness’ unsuccessful 2016 Senate campaign. He has been a public defender of the president on the Russia issue specifically, slamming “the absolute hypocrisy of the mainstream media’s vitriolic attacks on this president” in a late March radio interview on the controversy.
Sims, the former head of popular Alabama politics site Yellowhammer News, has been a public voice against another bogeyman of the Trump White House’s Russia strategy: the Obama administration. Sims suggested in the wake of Trump’s allegations that his predecessor wiretapped his campaign that Obama administration holdovers were abusing their power to damage the president.
The “deep state” and the political press are likely to be prominent villains in a White House communications strategy seeking to shift attention away from the contents of leaked law-enforcement information on investigations into alleged Russian election-meddling—and onto the leakers themselves and the journalists to whom they’ve leaked.
The war room’s full roster is still being hammered out, though press secretary Sean Spicer and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway are in the preliminary mix, one senior official noted. Senior adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly also taking a role in helming the effort, according to Axios.
The trio overseeing the creation of this “war room”—Bannon, Priebus, and Kushner—was dubbed on Friday as “The Holy Trinity” by Breitbart News, the pro-Trump website previously run by Bannon that has been recently antagonistic toward both Priebus and Kushner.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to speak freely.
From ‘fake news’ to real threat
The purpose of the frantically assembled operation is to grapple with the political and legal consequences, as well as the bad press, stemming from the Russia-related controversies and investigations plaguing the young Trump presidency. In its ideal form, the “war room”—which some staffers have started calling it following an earlier Axios report that named it as such—will be supported with outside advisers, and handle all things Russia—so that the rest of the West Wing and the administration aren’t paralyzed and can make moves on the president’s domestic and legislative agenda.
This embryonic “war room” is not to be confused with Bannon’s own personal West Wing “war room,” which is what Trump’s chief strategist unironically calls his own office.
“[Bannon]’s about to have two war rooms, now,” a White House official commented, with a chuckle. “How many war rooms can one man have?”
The management of the fallout since the firing of FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s infamous Oval Office meeting with Russian government officials has angered the president to the point where Trump has personally contacted former top campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie to discuss potentially aiding his administration as “crisis managers.”
Trump’s idle hands are dangerous
But no matter how much reorganization or extra help the White House gets to focus on messaging and strategy on Russia-related matters, White House officials involved in “war room” preparations privately concede that no level of internal rebooting will change the most significant factor: Donald Trump himself.
In recent weeks, much of the damage control attempted by White House staffers and communications team was abruptly upended by the president going off-script in interviews or on Twitter.
Last week, for instance, when the president gathered his senior advisers, in the Oval Office to discuss crafting a response to breaking news of a special counsel for the Trump-Russia probe, the president and his team settled on releasing a cool-headed statement.
The next morning, Trump, unsupervised, took to Twitter to complain violently about “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
A portrayal of a calm, unperturbed president was “the whole point of the statement that Trump all but deep-sixed when he started tweeting,” one White House official vented to The Daily Beast.
As part of Russia “war room” preparations, White House aides have had to quietly discuss possible ways to keep Trump off Twitter more, or at least to somehow temper the melodrama and confusion caused by his tweeted salvos.
It is not clear if there is even a feasible answer for their problem.
“We can’t exactly take away his Twitter, what do you want?” a senior aide remarked.
That’s not to say they haven’t tried multiple times.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s aides recently had to organize an “intervention” to plead with him to curtail his tweeting, warning him that certain tweets could “paint him into a corner” politically and legally. This year’s “intervention” was similar to a brief period toward the end of the presidential race when advisers finally, if fleetingly, “wrested away the Twitter account” from then candidate Trump, according to The New York Times.
And earlier this week, Politico reported that the president’s inner circle devoted months of “careful planning” to his high-profile foreign trip—planning that included an early decision to “pack his schedule so that he…according to one aide, ‘didn’t have time to tweet.’”
Two White House sources told The Daily Beast that keeping the president’s schedule as busy and as regimented as possible is one of the very few ways advisers have found that can limit Trump’s counterproductive tweeting habits, as well as his voracious TV consumption that often fuels his Twitter tirades.
Once the president returns to his daily White House responsibilities following his overseas trip, his ongoing scandals will be waiting for him right where he left them. And his would-be crisis managers will have to continue to deal with a boss who can’t seem to stop being mad online, damn the consequences.