The White House is looking to wall off the scandals threatening to overtake the president’s agenda by building a separate crisis management operation.
President Donald Trump personally reached out to two of his former campaign aides – his first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and his deputy campaign manager, David Bossie – to sound them out about working with the administration as crisis managers, according to two people familiar with the situation. POLITICO previously reported that both men were spotted in the West Wing last week, before Trump departed on his overseas trip.
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The response tracks with the steps taken by previous presidential administrations when confronted with independent inquiries like the one now being conducted by former FBI director Robert Mueller, who was appointed by the Justice Department last week to investigate the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 campaign, including contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials.
No formal announcement is expected before Trump returns to the U.S. this weekend. A White House spokesman said there were no immediate plans to hire Lewandowski and Bossie inside the White House, and it is unclear that the rapid response operation would be housed in the West Wing. It is likely, one person familiar with the operation said that the work would be done outside of the White House.
Lewandowski didn’t answer several phone calls seeking comment but said in a text message he was not in “talks with anyone” to join the administration. He didn’t respond to further questions. Bossie declined to comment for this article.
As the velocity of events – beginning with the president’s admission that he dismissed FBI director James Comey because he felt besieged by the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the campaign – seemed to spin out of control, the president has pointed the finger at his communications staff, undermining their message and looking elsewhere for guidance.
Previous presidents have resorted to – and benefited from – developing a rapid response operation that relegates press inquiries to an office distinct from the White House’s official press shop. As the Whitewater scandal threatened to consume Bill Clinton’s presidency, his deputy chief of staff, Harold Ickes, tapped spin doctors Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, who came to be known as the “masters of disaster,” to handle the affair.
The scope and complexity of independent investigations has typically proved a challenge for regular White House staffers, who have struggled to juggle them with their day-to-day duties, and veterans of previous administrations say creating an independent operation can relieve some of the pressure on the press office. “In my experience it’s exactly the right thing to do because it allows you to the greatest extent possible to contain the investigation, to keep the investigation away from White House business and to keep it out of the daily press briefings,” said Fabiani, whose staff totaled approximately 20 people, including lawyers and a team that worked with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Housing a rapid response effort outside the administration would be an unorthodox way to manage the ballooning scandals and mark a break with tradition. The Clinton administration housed its crisis management office on the top floor of the Old Executive Office Building across from the National Security Council’s Africa bureau.
The president on Monday stirred up some of the controversy he had hoped to leave stateside. As he met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Trump was asked about the Oval Office meeting in which he reportedly shared classified Israeli intelligence with Russian officials. “I never mentioned the word or the name Israel. Never mentioned during that conversation,” he said. “They’re all saying I did, so you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”
Trump’s remarks dragged the back-to-back-to-back scandals that dominated the week and a half before his departure into his first major foreign trip. White House aides have struggled to contain the fallout from a series of events that reached a climax on Friday when the New York Times reported – 30 minutes after Air Force One took off for Riyadh – that the president had derided Comey as a “nut job” in the same meeting with his Russian counterparts where he had disclosed high-level Israeli intelligence.
Trump fired Lewandowski, who oversaw his improbable primary victory, in June of 2016, just a month before he officially accepted the Republican nomination. As the steward of Trump’s campaign, Lewandowski made headlines as a fierce defender of his candidate, most notoriously when he was charged with battery after physically moving a reporter out of Trump’s path. Authorities ultimately dropped the charges.
The president’s turn to former campaign aides is a reflection of a broader tendency to rely on trusted allies during times of crisis. Unlike Lewandowski and Bossie, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer, and communications director Michael Dubke did not serve on the campaign. “At times of crisis obviously it’s important that you surround yourself with people you can trust, and Corey certainly has proven his loyalty,” said Alex Conant, a partner at the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, who served as Marco Rubio’s communications director during the 2016 campaign.
That said, there are limits to what aides can accomplish if the principal is unwilling to change. “The challenges Trump faces are not his staff’s fault. Staff changes won’t matter unless they come with systematic changes to how the president is running his White House,” said Conant.
Bossie’s addition to the White House in a crisis management role would mark an ironic turning point for a man who spent much of the 1990s as a top investigator for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee working to stoke the many scandals that swirled around the Clinton administration.
“He certainly knows how to set fires, whether he’s good at putting them out or not, I have no idea,” Fabiani said.