It was, in the words of one senior White House official, the worst day of Trump’s presidency.
White House officials spent early Tuesday wondering who was leaking details President Donald Trump’s classified conversations with Russian officials about intelligence shared by the Israelis, and moving to contain the fallout ahead of Trump’s planned trip to Jerusalem next week. They spent the evening facing a report that before he fired FBI director James Comey, Trump directly asked him to stop investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia ties—and worrying what else might yet be revealed.
“Nobody knows where this really goes from here,” the White House official said. “Everyone is walking around saying, ‘What is next?’”
In interviews, multiple White House officials indicated they feel under siege – unsure who in the intelligence community was leaking, how much damaging information was out there, when the next proverbial shoe would drop and what Trump might say.
Staffers shuttled back and forth among West Wing offices debating what to say without divulging confidential material or getting anything wrong. A deflated and exhausted Sean Spicer, who continues to read reports that his job is in jeopardy but is working 12 hours every day in his office, huddled in his office with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
There was a pervasive sense, another official said, that “we are kind of helpless.”
Republicans outside the administration didn’t mince words. “We’ve seen this movie before,” Sen. John McCain said at a dinner for the International Republican Institute. “I think it appears at a point where it’s of Watergate size and scale.”
Top White House officials learned of the looming New York Times story about a memo Comey wrote memorializing Trump’s request two hours before it went online. Aides rushed to ask Trump what he had actually told Comey. But the White House had no memos or tapes of the meeting to rebut the claims, several officials said. Trump didn’t even give an entire readout of his conversation, leaving staffers “actually unaware of what happened,” one official said.
“It’s not like we were in on the meeting,” this person said. “We had no idea. We still don’t really know what was said.”
Another official laughed when asked if Trump had really “taped” the meeting, as he’s suggested on Twitter: “If so, none of us have heard the tape.”
Trump was furious about the story, one of the officials said, but retreated to the White House residence within 75 minutes of it going online – leaving aides to “figure out how bad the fallout was.”
The White House put out a statement denying the accuracy of Comey’s memo. “This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey,” said the White House statement.
A senior administration official questioned the veracity of the Comey memo, asking why he didn’t express his concerns earlier and why acting FBI director Andrew McCabe said there was no interference during recent Capitol Hill testimony.
But inside the White House, there was a struggle to get any surrogates on TV because no one knew what to say or how to defend the story, one White House adviser said. At one point in the evening, Fox News host Bret Baier told viewers that “there are not Republicans willing to go on camera tonight as of yet.”
“There is this misunderstanding all these people want to go out there and defend us,” said one of the senior administration officials. “Who are they? Do you want to call them? Do you know how to get them on TV?”
Earlier in the day, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was given talking points to “try and turn the temperature down a little,” one person familiar with the comments said, “without causing more of a firestorm or making news or actually denying the story.”
But White House officials, one person said, are becoming increasingly leery of putting their names on statements in the immediate aftermath of stories – because Trump often contradicts them publicly or on Twitter.
And staffers have grown tired and upset about stories of a staff shake-up. Two officials said they had no idea if their jobs were in jeopardy – but that Trump has given people private assurances they are safe. That includes Spicer, according to one ally of his—though this person also said the communications staff is given very little say in decisions and then is left to clean them up.
Priebus is sitting in every meeting. Bannon has been given “some authority” to help clean this up, one outside adviser said. Other senior officials believe Trump trusts them.
“What he says on the phone to his friends, we don’t know,” one of the White House officials said. “We don’t even know if the people in the press who say they talk to Trump actually talk to him.”
There was a growing realization that Trump had made a number of missteps that hurt him with the intelligence community – and likely with Comey.
Two people familiar with White House discussions said Trump was determined to write a line in the letter firing Comey saying that the FBI director had given him three assurances he wasn’t under investigation. The words, said one White House adviser, “probably will cause him more heartbreak than anything else.” The line, this person said, had worried White House officials after it was printed – but few people saw the letter before it went out.
Internally, one senior administration official said, there was a realization he made the decision over the weekend in New Jersey, where “none of us were.”
Another person said White House aides learned about Trump’s comments criticizing Comey as a “showboat” as he said them on the air with Lester Holt of NBC – and showed up last Friday morning to the office to see his tweet about “tapes” of Comey’s meetings.
Aides were in meetings in the West Wing while the tweets reverberated, and then Trump walked into the Oval Office.
“They’re in a bad situation,” said one adviser who has known Trump for years. “If people wanted the Comey situation to go away, he did nothing to help that happen.”
Inside the White House Tuesday night, there was a decision to not put anyone on TV and to not put a statement out with someone’s name on it. Officials huddled to discuss the upcoming foreign trip, with specifics still not set, and concerns that the adventure will be overshadowed by news in Washington.
White House officials said there would be no more comments Tuesday evening.
“And we are hoping the president doesn’t tweet,” one said. “Fingers crossed.”