President Donald Trump considers himself his own best surrogate. He’s also his most strident spokesman.
Probes into possible ties between Trump’s associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign have led the White House to pull officials back from publicly defending the president on the topic. Republican lawmakers, in recent comments about James Comey’s allegation that the president urged him to consider dropping an investigation into a top aide, seemed to accept the fired FBI director’s version of events over the president’s.
The resulting shortage of public Trump defenders has amplified the Republican leader’s own justifications of his actions, which tend to be more brash and distracting than his attorneys – and members of his party hoping to spotlight their legislative aims – might prefer.
“I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible. Totally illegal? Very ‘cowardly!’” Trump wrote on Twitter Sunday morning, in between tweets boasting about current jobs data and stock market numbers and one labeling Democrats “OBSTRUCTIONISTS!”
Trump’s instinct is to "routinely counter attack," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally. "Starting with Page Six in New York, he’s always done that, and he’s not going to change."
The Comey attacks distract from the policy agenda, Gingrich acknowledged, though he said it didn’t make much difference since the Russia probes dominated headlines anyway.
Trump’s own attacks on Comey were particularly glaring because of the scarcity of similar language from most others in his party. The Sunday shows lacked administration representatives, which a White House official said was because aides have been instructed to refer Russia-related questions to outside counsel.
And Republican lawmakers didn’t seem to give much credence to his assertion that he did not encourage Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, as Comey said under oath.
“I would say it’s very inappropriate,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told CBS of Trump’s interactions with Comey, though he said he did not think Trump committed a crime.
“As Jim Comey said, it’s awkward to be able to have the president of the United States sitting down with someone in the FBI, the leadership of the FBI, to be able to have direct questions. And for the issue to come up about the Michael Flynn investigations – inappropriate,” Lankford said.
Even Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who has vigorously defended his father on Twitter in recent days, seemed to confirm the gist of Comey’s account.
"When he tells you to do something, guess what, there’s no ambiguity in it," Trump Jr. said in an interview on Fox News, describing his father. "There’s no, ‘hey, I’m hoping.’ You and I are friends, ‘hey I hope this happens, but you’ve got to do your job.’ That’s what he told Comey."
The White House appears to have recognized the need to enlist more voices in its defense. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to testify Tuesday on matters related to the Russia investigation, and one Trump supporter said the White House’s allies have already begun preparing surrogates to respond.
Trump spent the weekend at his New Jersey golf club, with aides providing little information about the president’s activities. Some word emerged via social media, where photos revealed Trump swung by a wedding Saturday night, dropping in for a surprise visit and posing for pictures with the bride and groom.
He also headlined a fundraiser at the club for Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ). The event was closed to press, but MacArthur campaign strategist Chris Russell said Trump’s remarks focused on the lawmaker’s role in revamping the House GOP’s Obamacare replacement bill.
The week ahead will provide fresh challenges to Trump’s message discipline, after the White House’s planned infrastructure week was consumed by Comey’s testimony and Trump’s counter-punches. The White House is aiming to shift the focus to jobs this week, allowing the president to hammer a message that helped carry him to victory last November.
Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, are heading to Wisconsin Tuesday to tour a technical college, and she will also lead a CEO roundtable this week.
Tara Palmeri contributed to this report.