Politics

Comey Testifies and the White House is so Mellow

Household chores, uncharacteristic low-key tone at executive mansion

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed the drama surrounding the testimony of FBI Director James B. Comey. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Every television was tuned to cable news. A crew worked on a long-broken gate near the North Lawn. Aides worked, walked and typed with purpose. Smoke billowed from the chimney of a West Wing fireplace. Reporters looked stressed.

On one hand, it was just another day at the Trump White House. On the other, it was anything but.

About a mile away, James B. Comey, the former FBI director Donald Trump fired amid a bureau investigation of Russia’s meddling into the election and potential nefarious ties between the New York business mogul’s campaign and Moscow, was accusing the president of lying to the American people.

“Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey said during his brief opening statement, referring to Trump’s claim that he terminated the country’s top cop, in part, because the FBI was in disarray.

If that extraordinary allegation ruffled feathers inside the West Wing, it was kept under wraps. Trump did not fire off a single tweet during Comey’s much-anticipated testimony. The White House did something it has struggled to do during its four months in power: remain on message — from junior staffers to the president himself.

[Trump Is Not a Liar, White House Spokeswoman Says]

Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters White House aides were “carrying on as … we normally would.”

During an off-camera briefing with reporters while Comey was still testifying, Sanders said she had spent most of the hours before it “looking through information on other questions that might come up outside of the Comey hearing.”

About as heated as things got were when Sanders was asked about Comey's statement that the president lied about the FBI being in disarray. 

“No. I can definitely say the president is not a liar,” Sanders said. “And, I think it’s, frankly, insulting that that question would be asked.”

But that tension was largely the exception. 

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About an hour earlier, Sanders and aides were prepping for her Q&A session behind a closed door in Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office.

Aides sat at their desks, typing away or chatting. A few came in and out of the press area known as “upper press,” where Sanders’ and Spicers’ offices are located.

Inside the Senate Hart Office Building hearing room, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was telling Comey his testimony “demonstrates why the odor of presidential abuse of power is so strong.” But outside the White House it smelled only of burning wood from the smoke produced by a West Wing fireplace.

Several White House aides exchanged pleasantries with reporters. Nearby, a television mounted on a wall showed four different networks carrying Comey’s testimony live.

But that’s not uncommon in the Trump White House. The lone difference on Thursday: Aides had the volume up, but none of the sets were blaring.

[Comey Calls Trump Out on ’Lies’ About FBI]

Sanders called the televisions tuned to news networks “standard operating procedure for this building.”

Just before 1 p.m., across West Executive Drive in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Vice President Mike Pence hosted local, state and tribal leaders as the White House continued its self-named “infrastructure week” efforts.

“Folks, it’s already been a banner week for infrastructure,” Pence declared in the ornate Indian Treaty Room. He ignored Comey’s testimony, and praised Trump at several points.

“And unlike [under the Obama] administration, we’re not just going to put up signs on the road saying we’re ‘shovel ready,’” he said to laughter from many of the officials eating Panera boxed lunches of sandwiches, cookies and bottled water. “Under this president, we’ll actually put shovels in the ground and work with our state and local governments to get the job done.

“With the leadership of President Donald Trump, I have every confidence that we will rebuild America, we will make America prosperous again, we will make our roads and highways more safe again,” Pence said as he closed his speech with Trump’s campaign slogan: “In a word, to borrow a phrase, we’ll ‘Make America Great Again.’”

[As Comey Testifies, Trump’s Presidency Hangs in Balance]

Hours earlier, the start of the workday at the White House had all the appearances of a normal day.

Shortly before 8:30 a.m., a box truck sat near a long-broken gate that leads to the driveway by the perfectly manicured North Lawn. The white truck slightly obscured the iconic view of the flower-surrounded fountain in front of the sun-drenched executive mansion.

Inside a security hut, a reporter joked with uniformed U.S. Secret Service officers about how long it has been out of commission.

“They just fixed it,” one officer said, shaking his head. “It’s been broken forever,” another said, adding: “Your tax dollars at work.”

As Comey neared the end of his public testimony, Trump mostly stuck to the script at the annual Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference at a Washington hotel. He did, however, vow to “fight” an unnamed foe.

“We know how to fight better than anybody,” Trump said, “and we never ever give up. We are winners and we are going to fight.”

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