When the ordeal of enduring James Comey’s Senate grilling was finally over Thursday afternoon, White House staffers exhaled.
The testimony was damaging — which they always knew it would be — but they were satisfied that he did not appear to further hurt the White House, the president or staff legally.
Their Thursday began the same as it had for just about everyone else in the nation’s capital, but with a stark difference. The fired FBI director’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee was deeply personal. They were scared.
They wanted to know if their lives, careers and reputations would be caught in the multiple investigations. They wanted to know if they would lose their jobs. They wanted to know if the escalating Russia scandal would consume the rest of President Donald Trump’s tenure.
And since they weren’t charged with responding, all they had to do was watch, and survive a seemingly endless wait.
As Comey testified, staffers sat at their desks while large TVs showing him loomed overhead, TVs configured to show multiple networks at once through split screens showed Comey on every one.
The tension was unusual even in a place where the intensity never ebbs.
“Everybody in the building is sitting there watching TV to see if the presidency is over,” said a Republican strategist in close contact with White House officials who did not want to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It’s personal.” Several others inside and outside the White House confirmed the mood.
But following Comey’s nearly three hours of public testimony, staffers at the White House expressed relief, and Trump’s defenders got feisty.
Comey had reiterated that Trump was not personally part of the investigation the FBI is conducting into whether his presidential campaign had played a part in the hacking and public release of emails, documents and voicemails by Democratic and Hillary Clinton staffers. To White House loyalists, that absolved Trump of allegations of collusion with Russia during the election.
Comey, they said, didn’t offer enough to warrant impeachment proceedings.
“No new real information came to light,” said a former Trump adviser who is in regular contact with White House officials but did not want to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue. “I don’t think anyone sees this as adding any more to the legal process...They dodged a bullet.”
The White House said little about Comey’s testimony, in part because staffers could be questioned in the investigation, except to refute the former FBI director’s assertion that the president of the United States lied.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer inexplicably took a day off from delivering his daily briefing to reporters. Instead, he spent the morning with the president and dispatched his top deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who hasn’t sparred as much with journalists, to send the message that the White House continued to concentrate on its policies.
“It terms of the mood of the White House, it’s a regular Thursday,” Sanders said at a short, informal briefing two hours into the public testimony. “We’re carrying on.”
Instead, the Republican National Committee tasked more than 60 of its employees to respond to Comey’s statements through a constant stream of emails to reporters. It booked surrogates took to local and national TV. It distributed talking points to Trump supporters.
“Wanted to make sure you saw that former FBI Director Comey just testified that neither President Trump nor his staff asked for the FBI investigation to be dropped,” Michael Ahrens, the RNC’s director of rapid response, wrote at 10:58 a.m., after Comey had appeared for about an hour.
“Comey: Trump not under investigation,” blared the subject line of an email from Ahrens at 1:23 p.m. after Comey was finished.
Trump spent his morning meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster discussing North Korea’s ongoing nuclear threat. He only watched snippets of Comey’s testimony, though he had read part of Comey’s written testimony, aides said.
Trump did not respond through his favorite mode of communication, Twitter, after numerous aides urged him not to do so. But he alluded to the fierce opposition he faces at a previously scheduled speech to religious conservatives at the Faith and Freedom Coalition across town.
“As you know, we're under siege, you understand that,” Trump said. “But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever.”
Trump’s major response of the day came shortly after Comey finished. Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s personal attorney, had met with the president for part of the morning at the White House.
In early afternoon, he traveled three blocks away to the National Press Club, where he announced that Trump was vindicated while he attacked Comey later for disclosing his private conversations with Trump to a personal friend who then gave it to the media.
‘It is now established that the president was not being investigated for colluding with or attempting to obstruct any investigation,” Kasowitz said. “As he said yesterday, the president feels completely vindicated and is eager to continue moving forward with his agenda, with the business of this country, and with this public cloud removed.”
A second former Trump adviser who is in regular contact with White House officials but did not want to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue said nothing in Comey’s testimony will cause Trump to lose his core base of supporters. That means the Republican-led House won’t act on impeachment.
“As long as the base remains happy nothing else matters because the House makes the decision,” the former adviser said. “And nothing currently out there hurts him with the base.”