Thanks to their boss’ own relentless actions, White House officials and allies are having a rough time moving on from ousted FBI Director James Comey’s testimony and focusing anew on fulfilling campaign promises.
On Friday, President Donald Trump boasted of his vindication, accused Comey of lying and hinted, through his attorney, that he would file complaints against the former FBI director for leaking information about their private conversations involving the investigation into whether Trump associates joined Russia in meddling in the presidential election.
“He's a leaker,” a defiant Trump said at a Rose Garden news conference. “But yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction. That was an excuse by the Democrats who lost an election that some people think they shouldn't have lost.”
Trump said he would be willing to speak with special counsel Robert Mueller under oath to discuss the conversations with Comey. The president declined again to say whether he is recording conversations in the White House, something he said previously he may have done.
The afternoon news conference capped a day that began when Trump aides who were downright giddy that the president did not respond to Comey’s testimony directly Thursday – at their own urging — became clearly disappointed that he reverted back to Twitter to criticize Comey early Friday.
And while Trump insisted he wanted to “get back to running our great country” his actions particularly frustrated Republicans eager to pass legislation now that they control both the White House and Congress for the first time in 10 years.
“Republicans on the Hill are desperate for the president’s self made distractions to cease and for him to focus on policy achievements,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist based in Sacramento, California. “They would prefer a world where the RNC isn't spending it’s resources to slime Jim Comey, but rather promoting health care reform, a tax overhaul and the virtue of deregulation.”
Before Trump’s forceful responses Friday, his staff and supporters had become increasingly confident that the White House could return to a fierce focus on its stalled agenda, a 2016 litany of pledges to overhaul the nation’s health care system and its tax code, toughen its immigration laws, dramatically pare the size of government and more.
The House passed, barely, a health care measure last month, and the Senate is now writing its own version.
Both Houses are now trying to write a federal budget for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1. Trump has proposed big domestic spending cuts and a boost for defense. He also wants money to build the U.S.-Mexico wall he made a centerpiece of his campaign.
“Congress has a limited bandwidth and time is becoming of the essence for big policy changes, especially for tax reform,” the financial services firm KBW wrote in a statement.
Presidents traditionally get heavily involved in pushing their agendas, particularly in their first months in office. While some Republican lawmakers dismiss the notion the Comey matter was a distraction, the controversy has made it tougher for the White House to lobby for its initiatives.
140 days in, we’ve had 140 different self-created distractions from any legislative agenda. It has become almost like Mad Libs, where you only need to fill in the blank of what the distraction du jour is.
Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist who doesn’t support either candidate
Comey’s appearance Thursday had initially given Trump supporters reason to be optimistic the focus could return to the policy agenda. Even critics of Trump acknowledged the president is unlikely to be charged considering Mueller allowed Comey, presumably his star witness, to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Comey reiterated that Trump was not personally part of the FBI inquiry into whether his associates had colluded with Russia to hack and release emails, documents and voicemails by Democrats during the election and stated that Trump did not demand the investigation be shut down.
And Comey may have hurt his own credibility by admitting that he leaked the contents of memos he kept in hopes that it would prompt a special counsel investigation, which it did, though the congressional and FBI investigations will now continue largely behind closed doors.
“The investigation is now private and the Republicans can go forward with their agenda,” said Keith Appell, a Republican consultant whose firm, CRC Public Relations, worked to secure the nomination of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
It was Trump, however, who wasn’t able to move on.
Just after midnight, Trump tweeted the first of a series of tweets about Comey. “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication...and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” he wrote.
But we want to get back to running our great country: jobs, trade deficits. We want them to disappear fast. North Korea, big problem. Middle East, a big problem
President Donald Trump
Then came word that his attorney is planning to file complaints against Comey with the Justice Department Inspector General early next week.
“Go to sleep. Get some sleep. Bring yourself to a place where the synapses are working,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Friday. “We have to find what he is suggesting to take our country forward, so we can agree or disagree or compromise, but he’s got to get to work on his job. But for some reason, he thinks his job is a reality TV show.”
Comey testified Thursday that he gave a friend, later identified as Columbia University professor Daniel Richman, the content of unclassified memos he had written about his private conversations with Trump so the friend could pass on the information to a reporter.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, said he does not believe that the Inspector General has any jurisdiction over Comey, who passed on the information after he left the department.
“Trump and his lawyers like to talk a good game, but from my recollection of Comey’s testimony, he ‘leaked’ the reports after he was terminated and no longer a member of DOJ,” he said.
Lesley Clark of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed.