- The White House is “paralyzed” and “teetering on the edge of a cliff” in the wake of an explosive whistleblower complaint about President Donald Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, a White House official told Insider.
- A senior US official backed up that characterization, describing the mood within the White House as “a Category 5 storm.”
- Insider spoke with half a dozen current and former officials and advisers who described a White House reeling from days of negative coverage and struggling to find a persuasive argument to counter Democrats’ rising calls for impeachment.
- Complicating things is the outsize role Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is playing in the controversy, as well as Trump’s public comments on the matter. “We’re just waiting for Hurricane Rudy to stop obliterating everything in its path,” the White House official told Insider.
- Trump’s advisers are also worried that the White House lacks a cohesive internal apparatus to push back on House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Trump.
- Trump needs a “defense that doesn’t look like it was put together by a bunch of pissed-off preschoolers,” a former White House official said. “You can’t go around screaming ‘fake news’ and ‘witch hunt’ when you yourself put the evidence out there. It doesn’t work that way.”
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“A Category 5 storm.”
That’s how one senior US official described the mood within the White House as it grapples with the fallout from an explosive whistleblower complaint that spurred an impeachment inquiry that threatens Donald Trump’s presidency.
At the heart of the controversy is a phone call Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, during which the US president repeatedly pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate corruption allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. Biden is one of the 2020 Democratic frontrunners and has been Trump’s chief political rival.
Insider spoke with half a dozen current and former officials and advisers who described a White House reeling from days of negative coverage and struggling to find a persuasive argument to counter Democrats’ rising calls for impeachment.
The House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, revealed the existence of the whistleblower’s complaint last month. But it was initially unclear what the complaint was about, or even whom it was filed against, because the Office of the Director of National Intelligence refused to release it to Congress.
As the public firestorm around the complaint and the phone call mounted, Trump decided to release a White House summary of his conversation with Zelensky, believing that he had done nothing wrong and that releasing it would calm some of the backlash and help him come out the other end of the controversy.
“It was the stupidest f—ing thing I’d heard in months,” a GOP adviser familiar with the president’s thought process told Insider of Trump’s rationale for releasing the memo. “Anyone who heard what was said on that call knew it would bury the president. That’s why they went and buried the transcript. I can’t fathom what would lead him to believe this would help his case.”
The source was referring to an allegation that senior White House officials tried to lock down all records of the call after the conversation. That detail was included in the whistleblower’s complaint, released by Congress last Thursday, the day after the White House’s memo about the call was made public.
Officials told the whistleblower they were “directed” by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system such documents are typically stored in and to place it in a codeword-level system, a National Security Council server meant to house classified and highly sensitive information pertaining to US national security.
The transcript hasn’t been released. But the White House’s summary of the call is more than damning and provides plenty of fodder for House Democrats as they conduct an impeachment inquiry, current and former officials told Insider.
The memo largely corroborates the whistleblower’s claims that Trump tried to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election, and the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, told Congress last week that the memo was “in alignment” with the complaint.
Trump, meanwhile, has defended his conduct during the call as “perfect.”
The White House and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
‘We’re just waiting for Hurricane Rudy to stop obliterating everything in its path’
Complicating matters further is the outsize role that Giuliani is playing in the controversy, as well as the White House’s lack of a cohesive apparatus to push back on the impeachment inquiry.
“We’re just waiting for Hurricane Rudy to stop obliterating everything in its path,” one White House official told Insider. Asked what they meant, the official replied, “Have you been watching TV lately?”
The official was referring to Giuliani’s slew of cable news appearances in recent days, during which he erupted at the news anchors interviewing him, contradicted himself, confirmed he asked the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, implicated the State Department in the controversy, and said he would not cooperate with the House’s investigation into the matter.
Trump has also been unusually active on Twitter in recent days, firing off dozens of tweets accusing the whistleblower of being a spy and committing treason; suggesting Schiff should be investigated for treason; and quoting a Fox News guest who implied that a civil war would break out if Trump were impeached.
Together, the White House official said, Trump and Giuliani’s antics have left the White House “paralyzed” and “teetering on the edge of a cliff” as it tries to cobble together a coherent defense against House Democrats’ impeachment investigation.
‘This thing is moving fast, and if the president doesn’t get out ahead of it, it’s going to swallow him up’
But the president has told aides and confidants he doesn’t need a more robust legal team, sources told Insider, because he believes that he’s his own best attorney and that the right-wing media machine will boost his case.
Perhaps for that reason, Trump was infuriated with the Fox News host Chris Wallace and correspondent Ed Henry over the weekend, both of whom raised questions about the president’s misleading defense against the whistleblower’s claims.
Trump expressed his anger toward Henry through a series of almost two dozen tweets and retweets attacking Henry and praising the far-right radio host Mark Levin for tearing into Henry during an interview on Fox News.
On the other hand, sources told Insider the president was thrilled with the performances of the White House policy aide Stephen Miller and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio on the Sunday shows, where both men vehemently defended Trump’s actions and laid the blame at Biden’s and the Democrats’ feet.
Still, others around the president have been working overtime to persuade him to beef up his war room as they anticipate the drip-drip nature of the whistleblower controversy and the impeachment investigation will continue taking its toll on Trump’s ability to govern.
Trump “is consumed by this,” one former White House official told Insider, and “he needs to find a way to put down his phone and actually do his job.”
“But he can’t do that while he’s surrounded by these PR clowns,” the official added, referring to Giuliani and the Fox News contributors Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, all of whom the president is said to have dispatched to dig up dirt on the Bidens.
Trump also needs a “defense that doesn’t look like it was put together by a bunch of pissed-off preschoolers,” the former official added. “You can’t go around screaming ‘fake news’ and ‘witch hunt’ when you yourself put the evidence out there. It doesn’t work that way. This isn’t a two-year-long investigation like the Mueller probe — this thing is moving fast, and if the president doesn’t get out ahead of it, it’s going to swallow him up.”