White House, allies scramble for ways to counter Comey

James Comey
FILE - In this Dec. 9, 2015 file photo, FBI Director James Comey prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trump abruptly fired Comey May 9, 2017, dramatically ousting the nation's top law enforcement official in the midst of an FBI investigation into whether Trump's campaign had ties to Russia's election meddling. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House and its allies are scrambling for ways to offset potential damage from fired FBI Director James Comey’s highly anticipated congressional testimony, an appearance that could expose new details about his discussions with President Donald Trump about the federal investigation into Russia’s election meddling.

Asked about Comey’s testimony, Trump on Tuesday was tight-lipped: “I wish him luck,” he told reporters before a meeting with lawmakers.

Trump’s White House and its allies are crafting a strategy aimed at undermining Comey’s credibility. Both White House officials and an outside group that backs Trump plan to hammer Comey in the coming days for misstatements he made about Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails during his last appearance on Capitol Hill.

Former FBI Director Comey to testify

An ad created by the pro-Trump Great America Alliance — a nonprofit “issues” group that isn’t required to disclose its donors — also casts Comey as a “showboat” who was “consumed with election meddling” instead of focusing on combating terrorism. The 30-second spot is slated to run digitally on Wednesday and appear the next day on CNN and Fox News.

At the Republican National Committee — which has been under pressure from the White House to step up its defense of the president — officials are assembling a rapid response team to counter Comey’s testimony and sending messaging memos to surrogates who plan to support the president on television. In a memo distributed Monday, the RNC said Comey “needs to answer a simple question about his conversations with President Trump: If you were so concerned, why didn’t you act on it or notify Congress?”

Comey’s testimony before the Senate intelligence committee marks his first public comments since he was abruptly ousted by Trump on May 9. Since then, Trump and Comey allies have traded competing narratives about their interactions. The president asserted that Comey told him three times that he was not personally under investigation, while the former director’s associates allege Trump asked Comey if he could back off an investigation into Michael Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser because he misled the White House about his ties to Russia.

Comey is expected to stick to the facts of what occurred and avoid presenting any sort of legal conclusion, according to a person familiar with the expected testimony who was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Democrats have accused Trump of firing Comey to upend the FBI’s Russia probe, which focused in large part on whether campaign aides coordinated with Moscow to hack Democratic groups during the election. Days after Comey’s firing, the Justice Department appointed a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to oversee the federal investigation.

Despite the mounting legal questions now shadowing the White House, Trump has needled Comey publicly. In a tweet days after the firing, he appeared to warn Comey that he might have recordings of their private discussions, something the White House has neither confirmed nor denied.

White House officials appear eager to keep the president away from television and Twitter Thursday, though those efforts rarely succeed. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president plans to attend an infrastructure summit in the morning, then address the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference at 12:30 p.m.

“The president’s got a full day on Thursday,” Spicer said.

The White House had hoped to set up a “war room” stocked with Trump allies and top-flight lawyers to combat questions about the FBI and congressional investigations into possible ties between the campaign and Russia. However, that effort has largely stalled, both because of a lack of decision-making in the West Wing and concerns among some potential recruits about joining a White House under the cloud of investigation.

“If there isn’t a strategy, a coherent, effective one, this is really going to put us all behind the eight ball. We need to start fighting back. And so far, I don’t see a lot of fight,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign aide.

Still, Trump supporters say they are willing to step in to help the White House deflect any accusations from Comey.

“If we feel he crosses a line, we’ll fire back,” said Ed Rollins, chief strategist of Great America PAC, the political arm of the group airing the Comey ad.

Rollins and others with Great America say they plan to stand up for Trump in cable appearances Thursday.

He said the White House has “improved” its communications with surrogates, starting with the president’s recent trip abroad, and frequently holds call-ins to discuss what story lines they’d like to push.

“I assume they’ll do the same thing with this,” Rollins said of the Comey hearing. However, he added, he had not heard from the White House about the Comey hearing as of midday Tuesday.

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AP writers Steve Peoples in New York, Eric Tucker in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Julie Bykowicz at http://twitter.com/bykowicz

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