WASHINGTON — As Washington gears up for one of its biggest political events in years — former FBI director James Comey appearing publicly on Capitol Hill — it's not a stretch to imagine the White House scrambling behind the scenes to set up a crisis-management system to contain fallout from any damaging testimony Thursday.
Instead, multiple people familiar with the planning describe to a different reality: early talk of a “war room” has petered out significantly. One source close to the White House describes it flatly: “There’s no war room. Zero.” Another administration source says it simply “never took off.”
What was originally intended to be an in-house command post has instead shifted outside the administration. The president’s aides are expected to shunt all Comey-related questions on Thursday to outside counsel Marc Kasowitz.
And while the White House "war room" isn't materializing, the president himself has — as expected — gotten involved in the strategy to contain any fallout Thursday. President Donald Trump has consulted with his outside counsel ahead of the hearing, according to a person involved with that effort. That external legal team, led by Kasowitz, is still working to get itself organized ahead of Thursday’s testimony, per this source. They’re expected to base operations out of the firm’s D.C. office for this week’s efforts.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer signaled this strategy last week, when he explicitly referred Russia-related inquiries to the president’s longtime lawyer.
Since then, Kasowitz has laid low. On Thursday, he won’t be able to: otherwise, the White House runs the risk of allowing Comey’s words — and those words alone — to define the storyline.
Kasowitz is no shrinking violet — he's known for being a bulldog advocating for President Donald Trump, a hard-nosed fighter willing to mix it up. But it’s still not clear what his messaging or communications strategy will be, or who will be helping deliver it. Former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie look unlikely to formally join the Kasowitz effort — though they’ve both appeared more frequently as TV surrogates in recent days.
Comey allies have told NBC News that he's eager to tell his story after Trump fired him on May 9. The president has cited the Russia probe as part of his rationale for getting rid of Comey. The former FBI director was heading the investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign worked with Russia to interfere with last year's presidential election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now leading the investigation after he was appointed on May 17.
And while the administration appears to be working to build a barrier between the White House and the Russia inquiry, Comey’s testimony presents questions: will that wall really hold up? Or might the White House’s resolve erode given the intense attention Comey’s appearance will receive? And the wild card: will the president be disciplined enough to stay away from post-testimony Comey talk or tweets?
We’ll find out soon enough.