Written by Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman
The last time Congress tried to impeach a president, the White House chief of staff had one rule: No one who wasn’t working directly on impeachment, including the president himself, was ever allowed to talk about it.
John D. Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s wiry, uber-disciplined chief of staff, delivered the message during a senior staff meeting. White House staffers were supposed to stay in their lanes, doing their jobs, or risk being fired. Any water cooler discussion about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or the impeachment proceedings, and “I will break your neck,” Podesta recalled telling his staffers, using an expletive. And that especially applied to Clinton.
Clinton’s aides had studied Watergate, and their takeaway was that the public believed President Richard M. Nixon was being buried by the scandal, in part, because he talked about it endlessly. So their approach was that the only way to survive and to keep his job approval rating up was to demonstrate that the White House was still working, and that Clinton was still doing the job he was elected to do for the people.
The strategy of controlling and disciplining Clinton worked. While a Republican-led House impeached him in December 1998, Democrats picked up five House seats the month before, his approval rating soared to 73% in the days afterward, and he was acquitted of the charges by the Republican-led Senate in February 1999.
But the approach is unlikely to succeed with President Donald Trump, someone less concerned with policy than he is with how things play in distinct, daily news cycles. He heads into what appears to be a rapidly unfurling impeachment inquiry unprepared temperamentally, and with a depleted staff, many of whom are shrugging off the seriousness of what the president faces.
The White House communications and press operations have seen their roles subsumed by Trump, who thinks he is his own best spokesman and sees little need to control his anger at his accusers. And the West Wing, under the leadership of an acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, has reverted to an unstructured workspace governed by Trump’s moods, with aides often dismissed or marginalized if they tell the president things he doesn’t want to hear.
Mulvaney is often described as a figurehead, with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, serving as the de facto chief of staff. The White House Counsel’s Office is also understaffed; Emmet T. Flood, who was part of Clinton’s impeachment legal team and then oversaw the Trump administration’s legal response to the special counsel investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, stepped down in June, as Robert Mueller’s investigation wrapped up.
A White House official said there had been “no need” for a replacement, and that there were no impeachment preparations underway in the White House because so far there was no actual impeachment inquiry to prepare for.
If anything, Trump and some of his advisers have grown convinced since the Mueller investigation that the tight discipline that worked 20 years ago may not be necessary.
Having a formal war room, or rapid response operation, “would be overreaction on our part,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. “It would be playing on the Democrats’ turf.” And if impeachment succeeds, Trump officials are anticipating a Republican-held Senate that would not permit witnesses to testify at length and would not convict him.
Trump, aides said, shares that view, and on Thursday he expressed no interest in building a war room to respond to what he views as an effort by congressional Democrats to harass him. In contrast to the Mueller investigation, which required the White House to turn over millions of documents, his aides feel there is little for them to do at the moment.
Also complicating matters, the White House Counsel’s Office and the National Security Council are implicated in the whistleblower’s complaint, which details how White House lawyers “directed” people to remove an electronic transcript of Trump’s phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine from the computer system where such transcripts are typically stored. The White House on Friday said lawyers from the National Security Council actually decided how to store the transcript.
Another complication: Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, has served as Trump’s main television surrogate in charge of rapid response, but he appears likely to be called as a witness and a key player in the proceedings.
That hasn’t stopped the former New York mayor from continuing to speak to the media, appearances the president has praised. “It is impossible that the whistleblower is a hero and I’m not,” Giuliani said in an interview with The Atlantic on Thursday. “I will be the hero! These morons — when this is over, I will be the hero.”
In theory, Trump’s White House could have been more prepared than Clinton was for the formal impeachment inquiry that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set in motion on Tuesday.
In January 1998, when news of the investigation into Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky first broke, the White House was blindsided and had to build a rapid-response operation and legal team from scratch. Trump, in contrast, spent almost two years fighting the special counsel’s investigation and lived with the threat of impeachment hovering over him since the early days of his administration.
But so far, there is little in terms of structure, and nothing in terms of discipline, emanating from the president.
“It’s very, very difficult, not because the White House counsel isn’t capable of that, but because Trump forces people out of their lane and into defending him,” Podesta said. “That’s the wrong strategy. The only way to survive is to keep focused on trying to act like you’re still the president of the United States.”
On Thursday, two days after Pelosi began a formal impeachment inquiry, Trump appeared to be letting the story overwhelm everything else. While Joseph Maguire, the acting director of National Intelligence, defended the rights of the whistleblower while testifying in front of the House Intelligence Committee, Trump was comparing him to a spy.
“You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right?” Trump told a stunned group of staffers from the United States Mission to the United Nations on Thursday and their family members. “We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
For now, the White House is planning to allow Trump to run his own show. It hopes the president’s ability to use the internet to amplify a message means Trump won’t need the same kind of structure that helped the White House respond to a slow-moving impeachment inquiry in the 1990s. And with sympathetic Fox News hosts, as well as conservative news outlets like Breitbart amplifying attacks on Democrats and support for Trump, the White House today has what is essentially an independent rapid response team working that they don’t even need to direct or bankroll.
Mulvaney briefly floated the idea of bringing in Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager who has been mulling a run for Senate in his home state of New Hampshire, to help lead some of the White House’s anti-impeachment messaging from the outside, according to two people familiar with what took place. But others close to Trump said that Lewandowski’s combative turn as a witness before the House Judiciary Committee recently could complicate that kind of role, and the idea was quickly sidelined.
West Wing officials said they viewed the Democrats as the ones fighting from a weak position. “Nancy Pelosi in a matter of moments washed away careful, deliberative restraint,” Conway said. “For months, she said it had to be bipartisan and accepted by the public. Neither is true.”
Inside the West Wing, aides who have been numbed since the release of the Access Hollywood tape by normally career-ending scandals that did not stop Trump’s climb are shrugging off the latest scandal. That view is shared by Trump loyalists in the administration.
“It’s silly to bring an impeachment proceeding based on an anonymous whistleblower who is not directly involved and whose complaint no one had seen,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in an interview scheduled to air Friday on Fox Business Network, after the complaint had been made public. “What I think is really disgraceful is that anonymous whistleblowers are given total credibility.”