Inside the Trump team’s fight over an impeachment communicator
Installing a communications specialist to spearhead impeachment messaging seemed like a no-brainer to some Trump allies. Inside the White House, it became another battle.
It’s been the latest fight within the impeachment fight.
When former top Treasury official Tony Sayegh showed up in the West Wing roughly two weeks ago to discuss a role helping out with President Donald Trump’s war against impeachment, his surprise appearance kicked off yet another West Wing turf battle.
Worried about their positions of power in the Trump orbit, a small but vocal group of senior administration officials started to raise concerns about Sayegh. To the president and his allies, these aides argued that bringing on a communications specialist focused on impeachment would make the president look “weak,” or show the White House seemed nervous about the Democrats’ moves even as Trump repeatedly said he did nothing wrong.
Sayegh also was tagged internally as a “Jared guy,“ meaning an ally of the president’s son-in-law and top adviser. Bringing on Sayegh would give Kushner a toehold in both the White House press and communications shops, new areas of influence for him in two departments Trump allies have long criticized for often not living up to the president’s expectations or properly defending the president.
As news outlets started to report Sayegh as a top contender for the temporary position, White House aides piled on. Sayegh allies took note and did their best to bolster their guy.
Another turf battle had officially started.
“While some people argue it makes POTUS look weak to bring on additional help, others think it is the White House getting ready to play offense,” said a person familiar with the process. “It would be a mistake for the White House communications shop to confuse people who could help as threats.”
For long-time White House observers, the back-and-forth over Sayegh’s potential hire just showed off the tried-and-true, factional nature of this particular White House: a team-of-rivals approach on steroids. Trump is always at the center of activity, and aides often disagree about trade decisions, foreign policy or personnel moves in front of him in the Oval Office. The only difference now in Year Three of his presidency is that the circle of aides around him is much smaller.
“Everyone is just so used to these turf battles. You just cannot lay down arms. All you know is fighting and infighting,” a former White House official said. “These battles have been going on since Day 1.”
During the four-week-long impeachment process, the battle lines inside the White House have been drawn and then re-drawn.
The chief of staff’s office and White House counsel’s office clashed over the power to drive the strategy and messaging, though lately that has subsided slightly.
White House aides originally disagreed about the effectiveness of releasing the transcript of the July 25 call.
And no one has been able to come to a consensus about the need for a war room to fight Democrats. President Bill Clinton had a separate operation within the West Wing in the late 1990s to help with the political and communication aspects of his impeachment battle. Several conservative leaders and Trump allies would like Trump to emulate that approach and take more unified, coherent stance. That would include developing and coordinating anti-impeachment messages to distribute to surrogates and Republican lawmakers. Trump, however, views the idea of a war room as a retro approach, which no longer feels relevant in the age of Twitter. He has made clear he sees no need for a separate operation.
“Here’s the thing: I don’t have teams. Everyone is talking about teams. I’m the team. I did nothing wrong,” Trump said told reporters recently.
Aides may fight among themselves as much as they like, but the president is primarily watching who is going on TV to defend him and taking note of that metric. In recent days, he has nudged his press secretary and communications director Stephanie Grisham to make more TV appearances. Trump would also love to see more senators defending him publicly, according to one senior administration official.
Sayegh is expected to join the White House on a temporary basis at some point, though one Republican close to the White House said “he would be joining an excellent existing team instead of operating a separate one.” It was unclear when he might start. Sayegh currently lives in New York. He previously worked as an assistant secretary at the Treasury Department, leading the office of public affairs and helped sell the Republicans‘ tax reform bill.
For a president who insists that he and he alone is “the team,” it’s also not clear if he will empower Sayegh — or anyone — to develop a singular message to fight the Democrats’ impeachment battle, which has been moving at a rapid pace.
The White House is on a high this week, buoyed by new polling that shows Trump ahead of Democratic rivals in key battleground states. White House aides were also thrilled when House Republicans stuck together and not a single one voted last Thursday to move forward with the impeachment inquiry, viewing it a sign of great support among Republican lawmakers.
“At the end of the day, even if they do bring him in, Trump is in charge, and he won’t delegate that stuff,” said another former senior administration official. “That just means that whether or not Tony joined the White House, it will make a difference only on the margin. It may not matter that much in the end.”