Movie Nights, Camp David and Cable Messaging: A White House Impeachment Playbook
WASHINGTON — The White House impeachment battle begins every day shortly after sunrise, when President Trump’s press secretary, his acting chief of staff and a group of lawyers crowd into the wood-paneled second-floor office of Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, to synthesize the latest Capitol Hill legalese.
An hour or so later, another group convenes downstairs in the office of Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary, to discuss the day’s top stories. Impeachment is usually one of them. Then, in an underground office, two new additions — Tony Sayegh, a former Treasury Department spokesman, and Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general — get to work on the job they were hired last month to do: attack the process.
This hivelike atmosphere is a change from just weeks ago, when the idea of a Trump White House war room was dismissed by aides as unnecessary. Now the war room could be defined as every room in the White House — plus some dedicated space for a rapid-response-style team in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
At the center of the effort is Mr. Trump. He spends his days “presidenting,” as the people who work for him put it, and receiving updates on how his surrogates have performed in more than 360 media appearances in the past month.
“Of course he wants everyone out on TV defending him,” Hogan Gidley, the principal deputy press secretary, said before adding the administration’s most relentlessly repeated talking point. “It’s easy when he’s done nothing wrong and you have the added benefit of having the truth on your side.”
It also helps to have the support of Republicans who are willing to disseminate that talking point, which has been disputed during weeks of House hearings delving into the president’s interactions with Ukraine.
So on Wednesday, the day before the House was scheduled to vote on two impeachment articles against Mr. Trump, Mr. Sayegh and Ms. Bondi departed for Capitol Hill to meet with House and Senate allies — and to perhaps catch morsels of information as the House Judiciary Committee began marking up the impeachment articles.
The half-dozen White House officials interviewed for this article all say that the impeachment is not much different from any other frenetic, entrenched time during Mr. Trump’s presidency. Several compared it to the partisan bloodletting on display during the confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh last year, when there was fear Republicans might break ranks.
White House officials say they have learned a few things about party unity since then. With the House vote as well as a Senate trial all but foregone conclusions, the goal from now on will be to keep Republicans in lock step with the president — and on message — as impeachment runs its course.
To make sure that happens, a charm offensive to keep congressional Republicans close started months ago. It has included movie nights in the East Wing, lunches and dinners at the White House with the president, and trips to Camp David. Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, has hosted 56 House Republicans at the retreat in recent weeks.
The perks come with one condition: You have to listen to the pitch.
“They come out, and we’re all on the same page,” Mr. Gidley said. “And one of the reasons they’re doing it, they’ll tell you, is that the messages work in their districts — whether right leaning, left leaning or down the middle.”
But Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, said he saw some immediate problems with the charm offensive, which he said dealt hardly at all with the substance of the charges against Mr. Trump and instead placed an emphasis on attacking the impeachment process itself.
“Are they doing a good job of disseminating false information? Absolutely,” Mr. Lockhart said of Republican lawmakers. “When you’re arguing process, most of the time you’ve already lost the argument.”
The president and his allies have closely followed Republican polling that they say shows Mr. Trump winning in several states that would be crucial for his re-election, and they are using those numbers as evidence of a shift in public opinion.
Still, Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster, said national polling on impeachment had remained relatively static through the impeachment inquiry, with some 50 percent of voters favoring it and 42 percent opposing it.
“This is a failure of his bully pulpit strategy because he hasn’t been able to move people,” Ms. Lake said of the president. “They have succeeded in polarizing the issue and stalling any movement, but they didn’t succeed in building up support, which they desperately need before the final vote.”
Outside a collective sense that the president is in charge of the messaging effort, the exact chain of command among these roving bands of impeachment-focused aides is murky.
“He’s always had a relatively flat organizational chart,” said Jason Miller, a senior communications adviser in Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. “This is not a White House structure where there’s one right-hand staffer who’s running everything.”
Much of the work involves divining what the president might want next. Mr. Trump has told his aides to put more legal experts on television to defend him, and sends along clippings containing points he thinks should be emphasized on a wider scale. Those usually make their way to Ms. Grisham.
In other administrations, press secretaries would spend their mornings preparing for the daily White House briefing, but Ms. Grisham spends hers communicating with the president and Melania Trump, the first lady, who are both glued to the news coverage.
“I talk to him all throughout the day, at nights and on weekends,” Ms. Grisham said of her contact with the president. “Then I relay to the team: ‘This is where his head’s at, and we need to support him in that way.’”
Aides insist the president is just as focused on policy issues, like the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, as he is on impeachment, but he is so engaged in the televised messaging effort that a weekly meeting to staff the Sunday shows takes place every Wednesday.
The participants range from Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor whom the president praised recently to aides aboard Air Force One as being “so quick,” to Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff.
“Radio hits and TV interviews, especially Sunday shows, run my life,” said Alexa Henning, a special assistant who wakes up daily at 5:30 a.m. to book and prepare White House officials for media appearances. As a Senate committee heard testimony on Wednesday from the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, on his exhaustive report on the Russia investigation, she was unsure when her workday would end.
Other officials involved are Adam Kennedy, a deputy White House communications director, who is credited by his peers for being able to read “reams and reams” of legal documents quickly in the service of parsing them into talking points. The next stop on the conveyor belt is Julia Hahn, a former Breitbart editor whom surrogates have gently chided for blasting out so many talking points that they have been mistaken as spam. (“You’re welcome,” a senior official quipped.)
While the press staff speaks on a range of other issues, the newest additions, Mr. Sayegh and Ms. Bondi, are seen as having a single focus. But in practice, the lines have a way of blurring. Behind the scenes, other aides have complained about the two arriving after much of the groundwork to bring Republicans into the fold was already laid.
But the boss wants what the boss wants. Mr. Sayegh, a fellow New Yorker, is liked by the people the president trusts the most, including Ivanka Trump, his eldest daughter, and Steven Mnuchin, his Treasury secretary. The president wanted Ms. Bondi on his impeachment team because she is a lawyer — a perk if you want more of them defending you on television.
Inside the White House, allies of Mr. Sayegh and Ms. Bondi have praised them for bringing order to a process that, just a month ago, saw Republican members of Congress veering off message. On a round of Sunday shows in early November, surrogates began suggesting that even if Mr. Trump held up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a political investigation, it would not be impeachable.
It was, as one senior official put it, an “electric fence” moment, but the ranks have been closed since then. In an interview this week in her office, Ms. Conway kept one eye on impeachment coverage — “they should put him under oath when he’s on TV,” she remarked upon seeing James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director — as she praised the messaging reinforcements.
“Our days and portfolios are overstuffed to begin with,” Ms. Conway said. “Adding short-term specialists to help address a short-term situation makes sense.”
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