By Brian Bennett
October 15, 2019

The White House’s strategy to defend President Donald Trump has been swamped in recent days by one of the most unpredictable forces in Washington: Trump himself. Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Sept. 24 an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate Joe Biden, five of Trump’s most senior advisors have tried to develop a methodical, coherent strategy to respond to Congressional demands and all-consuming news cycles. It hasn’t been easy.

Trump’s White House Counsel, Pat Cipollone, leads the legal strategy, deploying a maximalist view of executive power to rebuff House Democrats’ requests for documents and testimony. The White House head of legislative affairs Eric Ueland, a former top aide to GOP Congressional leaders, works to shore up Trump’s Senate firewall against removal from office. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham advises on communications plans. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney project White House messaging to the campaign and Trump’s orbit of defenders.

But Trump, as always, has been his own senior strategist, leaving his aides scrambling to keep up. Two moves in particular are complicating his defense.

Trump’s impromptu move to pull U.S. forces from northeastern Syria has prompted a backlash from Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. There is growing concern in the West Wing that Trump’s decision could dampen the defense he needs from Republican lawmakers as impeachment starts rolling forward. “Syria starts to impact people’s minds,” a senior White House official says, and requires a broader political push beyond a legal defense of the President’s actions. Trump’s withdrawal from Syria is a different topic from the Ukraine allegations, but “it doesn’t matter, that’s part of the dynamic environment we live in,” the official says.

And then there’s Trump’s continued reliance on his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. For a day or two last week, it looked as if Trump might distance himself from Giuliani, but over the weekend, Trump turned back to his defense, calling him “legendary” and the “greatest Mayor in the history of NYC.” Trump and Giuliani continue to talk directly, and the White House staff often don’t know what advice Giuliani is going to give him in advance. “What the f**k has Giuliani been doing?” the senior official says, adding: “People just scratch their heads.”

The news that Giuliani’s business associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were indicted for allegedly making illegal campaign contributions blindsided the West Wing and has created an unwanted distraction from Trump’s defense, said a second White House official. “At some point you cross a line and say, wait a second you’re doing more harm than good here,” the official says. Giuliani, who was regularly appearing on television news shows to defend the president, has stayed off the air for a few days. “The only person that can tell Rudy not to go on TV is the president,” the official says.

The unpredictability of Trump makes traditional White House defense all the more difficult. There’s a concern among some White House officials that Trump’s White House Counsel Cipollone, a long-time GOP lawyer and litigator, has blind spots when it comes to politics and communications. The plan last week to bring former Congressman Trey Gowdy, who was an attack dog in the House against Hillary Clinton, was intended to bring “fresh eyes” to Trump’s defense and leverage Gowdy’s political sense. But that plan blew up after Trump approved Gowdy for the job and his name leaked before his law firm could sign off on Gowdy moving over to the White House. Lobbying restrictions were going to prevent Gowdy from working in the White House until January, says a White House official.

In the meantime, as an alternative to bringing in outside help like Gowdy, Trump’s senior advisors are looking at ways to more fully staff up an impeachment war room by pulling in four or five seasoned lawyers in other general counsel’s offices in agencies and other parts of the federal government who haven’t been working in the White House general counsel’s office.

A former White House official said that anyone who joins Trump’s team would have to be prepared to get blamed if the House ends up voting to impeach him, even if the Senate blocks a conviction, which is likely. An impeachment in the House, “will remain with him forever,” the former official says, “he will blow out everybody and say it was their fault and they were totally incompetent,” the official says. “So why jump on board?”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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