White House Staff, Congress Blindsided by FBI Pick Announcement
President Trump decided to leave much of his senior staff out of the loop before announcing his pick to lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
A number of senior Trump officials learned of the president’s pick to lead the FBI the same way everyone else did: on Twitter.
President Donald Trump’s top communications staff, and much of his senior White House team, did not know the president was going to make the official announcement for nominating James Comey’s successor early Wednesday morning via a single tweet, according to multiple White House officials. Several observers noted Wednesday morning that Trump’s Christopher Wray announcement did not arrive with any fact sheet or official press release, as would be expected with news of this weight.
And it’s just the latest instance of President Trump’s senior staffers, particularly his communications and press shop, being cut out of the loop, undermined, and frazzled by their unpredictable boss and his compulsive tweeting habit.
One senior administration official said “of course not” when asked by The Daily Beast whether top communications staff such as press secretary Sean Spicer and his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, were informed that the president would be tweeting out the news about Wray on Wednesday morning, sans a basic press strategy in place.
Also left in the dark were key members of Congress whose support could be vital to Wray’s confirmation—and to building goodwill in the face of intense scrutiny of every administration decision with respect to the agency investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, respectively the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, learned of Wray’s expected nomination through Twitter. So too did House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
It is unclear who, exactly, besides the president himself knew that this major development was coming when and how it did. Of the six White House and senior administration officials who spoke with The Daily Beast about Wray’s nomination, none said that they were aware of it before Trump’s early morning tweet in advance.
“We woke up to this,” one official said. “[Everyone in the White House] should all be used to this by now... This is how [Trump] operates.”
Asked after the president’s Twitter announcement whether the White House had prepared any material promoting Wray and his nomination, one staffer simply replied, “Something will be put out.”
Three hours after the president’s announcement, the only official communications out of the White House had taken place on Twitter, through a few short messages from senior communications staffers praising the pick.
Sanders and Spicer did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on Wednesday morning. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
While some of the president’s senior staff were caught off guard once again, others were simply resigned to the fact that this is now how White House senior staff should expect to craft major strategy and media rollout: Often, by simply reacting to a @realDonaldTrump tweet or off-message public statement, and adapting quickly and accordingly, if begrudgingly.
Last month, White House aides weighed having a team of lawyers vet the president’s Twitter in advance to ensure he was not putting himself in a legal or political bind unnecessarily. Attempts to do so, naturally, failed immediately. As The Washington Post reported Tuesday, Trump’s staff is still also trying to get him to watch less TV—those efforts have failed miserably, as well.
“There is never any permanence when there’s attempted stage-management of him, his Twitter, or otherwise,” a senior administration official and veteran of the Trump campaign, vented to The Daily Beast.
In recent weeks, Trump has emphasized, both internally and publicly, that he prefers being the main, frequently lone, decider in White House messaging and does not intend to curtail the excesses and pronouncements that have proven such a headache for his advisers and team.
Longstanding concerns are heightened given the stakes of this week’s events. With former FBI Director Comey set to brief senators in a highly anticipated public hearing Thursday, internal concerns over Trump’s one-man PR operation, and its potential impact on White House strategy and an already-besieged communications team, are reaching a fever pitch.
Trump has “this amazing ability to single-handedly shift the narrative, but more often than not he’s shifting it in a direction that’s not helpful,” another White House official told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know what he’s going to say [during Comey’s testimony], but it’s making people nervous.”
Last month, in the wake of Trump’s firing of Comey and the media fallout that ensued, the president ended up shoveling a large share of the blame onto his communications staff, including Spicer, for what he perceived as their inability to properly manage the weeks-long crisis. Trump’s frustrations resulted in the president mulling severe staff shakeups, and also ultimately limiting Spicer’s on-camera air time.
In recent weeks, Trump’s senior advisers, including chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, and senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, spearheaded plans to create a Russia-related “war room” to fight back against the scandals and controversy that have plagued the Trump White House ever since Comey’s ouster.
These plans for building a team to hone a more coherent message and rapid-response on the controversies involving alleged Russian election meddling, and Trump’s reaction to it, fell apart when Trump and his senior staff couldn’t come to much of an agreement over the functions, dynamics, and composition of the “war room.”
It “destroyed itself,” a senior Trump aide told The Daily Beast.
The “war room” idea was put on ice in part due to the president’s insistence on micromanaging messaging strategy in response to a torrent of leaks revealing his attempts to convince Comey to slow the FBI’s investigation—in particular its focus on former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn.
Now, with the new crisis-management plans dashed and staff returning to essentially the same operating procedure that greatly infuriated the president last month, Trump’s comms shop is left concerned that they’ll be unfairly made the White House whipping boy yet again, as the president inevitably triggers more self-inflicting crises for his young administration.
“[It’s back to] us scrambling to figure out what to do... like before,” the senior aide said. “We literally have no other choice.”
The aide added that the president’s senior aides and his communications staffers are now “waiting on his next wrath,” which will undoubtedly result in the blame getting piled onto others not named Donald J. Trump.