As James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday, President Donald Trump’s allies are prepared to cast his decision to fire the former FBI director as a selfless move that he made for the good of the country.
“President Trump knew firing Comey would be detrimental to his presidency, but he knew it was the right thing to do for the country, so he did it anyways,” according to a set of talking points the Republican National Committee is providing to Trump-backers.
While the RNC’s decision to pinch-hit for the White House on a rapid response effort and communications strategy is an unusual one in some respects, it’s an easy fit in others. Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, previously served as chairman of the RNC, where he oversaw the build out of the committee’s research effort and communications team.
And former White House staffers are pitching in. Mike Dubke — who recently resigned from his role as White House communications director — played a part in organizing the Comey response effort. He was spotted at the RNC Wednesday walking staffers through the plans for Thursday’s testimony.
By relying on the RNC, a bare-bones White House staff stands to reap the benefits of the party’s existing network of surrogates, state parties and elected officials to help defend Trump ahead of the “outsized coverage” anticipated around the Comey testimony, the RNC official said.
It’s an apparatus the Republican Party has deployed to try to help Trump execute on other priorities, such as building a drumbeat of grassroots support in favor of his nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.
“Our bullhorn, if you will, is a very large and helpful tool in getting this message out,” the senior RNC official said.
The RNC has already begun briefing its state parties, members of Congress and surrogates in preparation for Thursday’s hearing. Their primary arguments echo those of Trump’s personal lawyer — that the President feels “vindicated” by the written testimony, in which Comey acknowledged that he told Trump he was not personally under investigation.
The President’s allies had been prepared to say that Trump never asked Comey to end an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn or anyone else. But they backed off that plan after Comey’s written testimony — which clearly contradicted that narrative — was released, according to someone familiar with the plan.
But the RNC is also prepping Trump-backers to argue there is no evidence of collusion or obstruction of justice. One talking point notes: “The testimony also confirms that President Trump did not impede or engage in obstruction of justice of the investigation.”
Trump’s allies are expected to take aim at the press as well. “The Left and the media are using the Russia investigation as a means to obstruct the President’s agenda. It is time to get back to the real issues,” according to the talking points.
Also in the RNC’s crosshairs — the Democrats — who, according to the GOP talking points “have been tripping over themselves on the issue of whether Comey deserved to be fired.”
But one of the more questionable talking points could be the notion that Trump’s decision to fire Comey — who was at the helm of the Russia investigation that had the President fuming — was borne out of patriotism.
“The President made this decision in the best interest of the country, period,” a senior RNC official said. “He knew it would make it harder on himself, and he didn’t sway from that decision. We’ll continue to push that narrative.”
It’s a different narrative than the one the White House shopped around in the wake of Comey’s firing. In the immediate aftermath, White House officials said they expected both Democrats and Republicans to welcome the move and were even caught by surprise at the backlash Trump was facing.
The RNC’s effort comes amid last-minute jostling over how to create an organization to defend the President ahead of Comey’s testimony. Attempts to set up a war room that would have functioned with a combination of White House staffers and outside advisers stalled, as Trump’s team was preoccupied with building out its legal team.
“The RNC’s job is to defend and promote the President,” the senior RNC official said. “It’s a political role that the RNC is built to play.”
For now, the strategy hinges on talking points and surrogates rather than any paid media efforts, the official said. It remains unclear whether the RNC will permanently take up the Trump defender mantle on issues surrounding the Russia probe. One GOP official said the situation is still fluid.
But it appears to be a welcome assist for White House staffers, bogged down by questions about Russia. By Wednesday afternoon, the White House press shop was pointing reporters to RNC statements rather than anything originating from the West Wing.
But perhaps the biggest risk to the RNC’s approach is the Twitter-happy President, who can undermine the most carefully crafted communications strategy in 140 characters or less.