When it comes to messaging, Team Trump often struggles to get everyone on the same page. Now, as the president and his allies respond to Thursday's potentially incriminating testimony by former FBI director James B. Comey, the stakes are higher and the task more complicated than ever.
The mission is to counter any appearance that Trump might have obstructed justice, an impeachable offense. Comey offered no opinion, deferring to special counsel Robert Mueller. But he said he felt the president had directed him to shut down an investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn by saying in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
Pushing back against Comey's account requires coordination of at least five distinct messengers or groups of messengers: the White House, congressional Republicans, Trump's personal lawyers, unofficial surrogates (think Corey Lewandowski) and the president himself.
That is a lot to handle — especially when you consider that the White House is currently without a communications director. Inconsistencies already are becoming a problem.
While Comey was still at the witness table Thursday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) addressed reporters and said, “The president’s new at this. He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White House. He’s just new to this.”
It sure sounded like Ryan believed Comey's testimony but was contending that the rookie president deserves some grace because he didn't necessarily know that his request to let Flynn off the hook was inappropriate.
Ryan's line of argument did not match that of Trump's outside counsel, however, who said after Thursday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that “the president never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that Mr. Comey ‘let Flynn go.’ ”
Then, on Friday, Trump tweeted a link to a Fox News article that cited the analysis of Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who said, “The president has the authority to direct the head of the FBI to stop investigating anyone. … I think this puts an end to any claim that President Trump obstructed justice. You can't obstruct justice by simply exercising your power under the Constitution.”
So, which is it? Trump's top lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, says the president didn't ask Comey to lay off Flynn. Ryan seems to be saying that Trump did — but didn't know any better. And Trump appears to be endorsing the explanation that he was within his rights to tell Comey to let Flynn go.
None of this lines up.
And what about Comey's claim that Trump sought a loyalty pledge?
Here's what Kasowitz said: “The president also never told Mr. Comey, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty' in form or substance. Of course, the office of the president is entitled to expect loyalty from those who are serving in an administration.”
Kasowitz is making two different arguments here: 1. Trump never asked for Comey's loyalty; 2. Trump is entitled to Comey's loyalty.
A third argument came from Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager, who has no official White House role but remains an unofficial adviser.
“What the president asked for was loyalty to the country and loyalty to make sure that the American people have the justice system that they want,” Lewandowski told Fox News.
Again, Team Trump can't get its story straight. Kasowitz is saying Trump did not demand loyalty — but it would be totally fine if he did. Lewandowski is saying Trump did demand loyalty — but meant allegiance to the country.
We're not talking about multipronged public relations strategies here; we're talking about factual discrepancies.
It is hard enough to win in the court of public opinion when all you have to rebut an opponent's word is your own. It is even harder when your own word, as communicated through various mouthpieces, contradicts itself.