Politics

Ahead of Comey testimony, Republicans prep response efforts -- and brace

Former FBI director to break silence Thursday

WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Donald Trump couldn't get through a round of thank you's during a meeting Tuesday with GOP leaders and his top White House aides without alluding to the ever-growing controversy that has now reached his son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner.

"Jared's actually become much more famous than me ... I'm a little upset about that," Trump said obliquely, referring to the headline-grabbing allegations surrounding his son-in-law's contacts with Russian officials.

Nervous laughter rippled through the room of GOP bigwigs huddled around the Roosevelt Room table, though House Speaker Paul Ryan barely managed a smirk.

The GOP leaders had huddled at the White House to chart a way forward on two big-ticket legislative items that have stalled in Congress, tax and health care reform. But the remark -- from a President who in recent weeks has appeared at times consumed by the barrage of Russia allegations -- was yet another painful reminder that the Republicans' legislative agenda was about to be upended once again by the controversy that has stormed over the White House for months.

Comey speaks

Axed FBI Director James Comey will break his silence on Thursday in sworn testimony before the Senate intelligence committee to address his firing and allegations that Trump asked him to kill the federal investigation into his former national security adviser, putting the Russia controversy that has hampered the GOP agenda front and center once again.

White House officials and the President's allies on the outside have begun crafting a plan to counter the Thursday testimony, but those efforts so far appear jumbled.

As Trump embarked on the second-half of his first foreign trip, senior White House officials began crafting plans to create a war room-like structure to get a grip on the incessant salvo of Russia-related blockbusters.

But just two days before Comey's testimony, that war room has yet to materialize and multiple sources said its creation is effectively on hold until Trump fleshes out his legal team to represent him on the matter with a DC counsel to work with New York-based attorney Marc Kasowitz.

"There's no surrogate operation, no big picture narrative," one source said. "It's worse than it even looks."

But Trump is continuing to stew over the Russia allegations and the lack of a robust operation to defend him from the constant barrage, recently cutting into a largely positive phone conversation to begin griping about the latest allegations that prompted the FBI to examine Kushner's contacts with Russian officials.

RNC to the rescue?

Looking for work-arounds, the White House is handing off Comey testimony response efforts to the Republican National Committee, which has already begun coordinating a messaging campaign at the national, state and local levels to defend the White House from Comey's potentially damaging testimony.

The RNC has already booked White House surrogates on local and national TV and radio programs and begun placing op-eds, and on Thursday will spearhead rapid response efforts to response to Comey's testimony.

"The RNC's top priority is to support and defend the White House and this week is no different," RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney said.

Talking points shared by the RNC will focus in part on pushing the message that both Republicans and Democrats had previously lost confidence in the ex-FBI director, urging Trump surrogates to parrot Democrats' criticism of Comey before his firing.

The RNC is also stepping in at a time when the White House is increasingly looking to distance itself from the Russia investigation.

"They're relying on the RNC a lot to drive some of the messaging to sort of separate themselves from it too," said a Republican close to the White House. "The White House is realizing that they don't want to be the only ones bearing the burden for responding to Russia and so they're farming some of it out."

But the temporary plug for the Comey testimony still leaves the messaging problems that have beleaguered the White House for months unsolved.

Stalled agenda

The drip, drip, drip of allegations surrounding Trump campaign associates' contacts with Russian officials have gotten in the way of White House officials' efforts to implement Trump's agenda, dogging efforts on Capitol Hill and sending the president's top aides into crisis response mode.

"There's no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda and detracts from what we're trying to deliver to the American people," White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told reporters on Monday.

But beyond devising a thorough and effective messaging strategy to deflect the steady stream of bombshell reports surrounding the federal investigation that have dogged the White House in recent months, the White House will still have to contend with a President who has frequently stepped on official messaging efforts in 140 characters or less.

Days before Comey's testimony, nobody would rule out that the President could take to Twitter on Thursday to respond directly to Comey's testimony -- with perhaps less savvy than RNC-crafted talking points.

On Monday, the President kicked off what was designed to be infrastructure week with a series of newsworthy tweets about his travel ban -- just the latest instance of Trump stepping on his communications shop. And Trump advisers and Republicans across Washington are already bracing for a Twitter salvo from the President on Thursday.

"If there's ever a day for him to get his hands tied behind his back, that's the day," a Republican close to the White House said. "But that's not gonna happen."


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