WASHINGTON – The White House is engaging in a more aggressive and organized response to Democrats’ impeachment inquiry after hiring two new aides, though his congressional allies say the effort remains handicapped by President Donald Trump’s own unpredictable reactions.
Trump recently hired Tony Sayegh, formerly the top spokesman at the Treasury Department, and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to coordinate the White House’s communications on impeachment. They supervise a “rapid response” to the public impeachment hearings, issuing talking points and statements in real time that attempt to undermine the credibility of witnesses or contradict their testimony.
But the challenge the pair faces was on display Wednesday, as Trump addressed reporters at the White House while his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified that the president directed a scheme to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his political rivals.
Trump, reading from notes he had hand-written himself, said that he didn’t know Sondland very well. Mike Pence’s office, meanwhile, issued a statement from his chief of staff alleging that Sondland had lied to Congress about a conversation with the vice president.
Sayegh is on leave from Teneo, a public relations and strategy firm in Washington, and Bondi resigned from a lobbying firm, Ballard Partners, to join the White House. They’re expected to assist with strategy, public messaging and other projects for about three months. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said they report to her, although other people familiar with the situation say the two new aides also confer with White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
“The team we put together a month ago has always been unified and ready to be aggressive when the time was right,” Grisham said in an email. “I am thrilled to have Tony and Pam join the team for a short time to help us in those efforts.”
Sayegh’s role is behind the scenes, while Bondi’s duties include making television appearances to defend the president. They both coordinate with congressional Republicans and Trump’s allies outside the White House, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, has also participated in calls with conservative groups to coordinate impeachment communications, two of the people said.
Bondi stumbled in her debut on Wednesday, misstating Sondland’s title in an interview with CBS News as she struggled to answer a question about how well Trump knows his ambassador.
“He was ambassador to the Ukraine. He is ambassador to the Ukraine. And the president knows him, the president does not know him very well,” Bondi said in the interview. “He’s a short-term ambassador. Of course he knows him, he’s the ambassador.”
Bondi has 18 years’ experience prosecuting criminal cases, including murder and domestic violence, before becoming Florida’s top law enforcement officer. She said she was aware that she misspoke in the CBS interview.
She’s scheduled to appear on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News later on Wednesday.
Sayegh declined comment.
Bondi and Sayegh, who share an office, direct the West Wing’s “rapid-response” team during televised public hearings in the House inquiry. The group includes members of Grisham’s staff. On Tuesday, that operation issued talking points to supporters declaring that a key witness who still works at the White House, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, “has major credibility issues.”
On Wednesday, the team highlighted parts of Sondland’s testimony it considered exculpatory for Trump, including the ambassador saying that he was only making a “guess” about why the president withheld military aid Congress had directed him to provide to Ukraine.
Sayegh speaks multiple times each day with congressional Republican communications aides to try to sync their messages with the White House, according to people familiar with the matter, and has met with both large groups of Senate and House GOP staff as well as a smaller working-group of aides focused on impeachment.
Sayegh, 43, and Bondi, 54, aren’t the only Trump allies helping him battle impeachment. But their roles may expand given that Trump’s personal attorney and most vocal defender, Rudy Giuliani, faces his own legal jeopardy related to his activity in Ukraine.
The pair’s involvement in the White House response has heartened some Republicans on Capitol Hill who were previously dissatisfied with the president’s team, according to two congressional officials. Trump’s effort to blunt the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry has been marked by infighting between aides and untimely tweets from the president’s personal account.
Before Bondi and Sayegh were hired, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Cipollone clashed over who should direct the impeachment response, fueling concern among the president’s allies that the West Wing was ill-equipped to defend Trump. Some of Trump’s tweets have caused discomfort among congressional Republicans, especially an attack on former U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Friday during her testimony, a missive Democrats said could amount to an attempt to intimidate the witness.
Trump has said he has a right to defend himself and that he didn’t intend to intimidate Yovanovitch. Some House GOP lawmakers have also refused to echo the White House’s attacks on Vindman as unreliable and a possible leaker.
Additionally, his directive that the administration not participate in the inquiry has been ignored by many officials following subpoenas from House Democrats.
And even on the White House grounds, impeachment messages are not entirely coordinated. For example, Pence’s office did not ask Trump’s communications officials to review the statement by his chief of staff, Marc Short, before it was issued on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the matter. In addition to challenging Sondland’s testimony, Short’s statement sought to distance Pence from the Ukraine scandal.
In a July 25 phone call, the president asked Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate a discredited allegation that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election and to probe Burisma Holdings, a company connected to former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
Short said Pence raised none of those issues in a subsequent Sept. 1 meeting with Zelenskiy in Warsaw.
“Multiple witnesses have testified under oath that Vice President Pence never raised Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden, Crowdstrike, Burisma, or investigations in any conversation with Ukrainians or President Zelenskiy before, during, or after the Sept. 1 meeting in Poland,” Short said.
Sayegh has strong ties to Capitol Hill from his time at the Treasury Department, where he helped the White House win passage of its 2017 tax overhaul, and that familiarity has helped to encourage congressional Republicans, according to the two congressional aides.
One of them described the hires as accelerating the White House’s response from zero to 100, adding that it showed the West Wing is finally taking the impeachment probe seriously. Trump had previously resisted creating a “war room” or bringing on additional staff to fight impeachment, essentially leaving himself in charge of the response.
“I’m the team,” he told reporters in October, before Bondi and Sayegh were hired.
While Republicans in Washington largely acknowledge there is no reining in Trump or his Twitter account, many believe a better-coordinated White House response can help the party win the battle for public opinion. A slight plurality of Americans, 46.6 percent, support Trump’s removal from office, compared to 45.5 percent who don’t, according to an analysis of polling by the website fivethirtyeight.com.
Chipping away at public support for Trump’s removal would likely assure the president isn’t convicted by the GOP-controlled Senate, should the House pass articles of impeachment as expected. It could also shore up his chances of re-election in 2020. Trump has already tried to appeal for public sympathy, portraying himself as the victim of an attempted Democratic “coup” and pointing out that some of his opponents have promoted his impeachment since nearly the start of his presidency.