White House

Trump readies for public phase of impeachment inquiry with new hires, Hill meetings

In a quest to streamline its messaging on a fast-moving Democratic impeachment inquiry, the White House has hired two top communications specialists to lead their public response and is sending aides to Republican strategy meetings on Capitol Hill.

A senior administration official confirmed to McClatchy that Pam Bondi, former Florida attorney general, and Tony Sayegh, a former Treasury Department official, “are expected to join the White House communications team to work on proactive impeachment messaging, and other special projects as they arise.”

“The roles within the White House will be temporary and they would be working as Special Government Employees,” the official added, referring to a temporary work classification.

Both are seasoned Republican operatives aligned with President Donald Trump. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, advocated for both hires, a second official confirmed.

The selection of Sayegh and Bondi comes amid calls from Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill to coordinate the party’s messaging strategy on the impeachment inquiry, now entering a public phase as House Democrats release transcripts of critical depositions and schedule open hearings with key witnesses.

Trump administration officials reportedly wanted to fill the position nearly a year ago when they feared former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into potential obstruction of justice would be the president’s undoing.

Many congressional Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, had recently expressed an eagerness for a point person from the White House to supplement the president’s Twitter messaging.

In a sign the White House was feeling some pressure, it recently started sending aides to attend daily meetings convened by Republican communications directors on Capitol Hill.

These meetings — attended by senior communication staff to House GOP leaders and the six ranking members of the committees with jurisdiction over impeachment, along with a representative from the press office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — have been taking place five days every week since Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry in September.

Rather than share information or offer feedback, however, the administration aides, including White House director of government communications Tori Symonds, were “mostly there to listen,” one source told McClatchy — a description backed up by two other sources.

Their participation in the more free-wheeling strategy sessions was not a substitute for the sophisticated White House “war room” manned in the 1990s by Lanny Davis, the veteran lawyer and crisis management guru who oversaw messaging for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

At this point, Davis told McClatchy it’s probably too late for Trump’s team to build anything close to the type of “machine” he built during the Clinton years.

“My role was to be the outside spokesman for the inside machine,” he explained. “My machine in the Clinton White House was one-part political and one-part legal. Every night, every day, I went on TV to defend President Clinton. I would call into my war room and consult with lawyers on the facts. Every day there was a new set of questions that required facts and the political people in the room would help me craft the message from the facts.”

Republicans in both chambers appear to be in near-lockstep that the argument against impeachment should center on the closed-door hearings controlled by Democrats rather than the substance of the complaint that Trump might have withheld assistance to Ukraine in exchange for investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Republican leaders are pleased with the lawmakers who have become self-appointed party surrogates on the impeachment issue. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, along with Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Lee Zeldin of New York, have sat in on classified briefings and are eager to go on national television and effectively tout the party line.

After House Republicans voted unanimously last week against a resolution laying out the process for proceeding with a public impeachment inquiry, the GOP is more emboldened than ever that their members are all on the same page.

Updates with selection of Bondi and Sayegh.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.
Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.