Sen. John McCain stood up in front of the media Tuesday night and compared President Donald Trump’s daily scandals to Watergate and Iran-Contra.
And no one from the White House bothered to call up the Arizona Republican afterward and check in with him.
“I’m going to wait by the phone,” McCain said dryly Wednesday.
The Trump White House has done essentially no damage control in the aftermath of reports that ousted FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo alleging that Trump tried to kill a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. No talking points have been distributed, and few reassurances have been given to Republicans, leaving frazzled and exhausted lawmakers to freelance their own response.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), whose job in leadership is to help Republicans formulate a message and conceivably defend a president of their own party, had received no outreach from the White House as of Wednesday afternoon.
“I’ve not heard that from them. I’ve heard nothing. I should, shouldn’t I? I’m not sure that there’s that level of organization,” Thune said. “For most people this is kind of: Formulate and express your own point of view if you want to.”
It’s a sharp break from past White Houses, which typically would coordinate responses to damaging leaks or negative news stories with key allies on Capitol Hill. And the lack of communication between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is compounded by the sheer magnitude and pace of the crises coming out of the White House on a daily basis.
“We get in this whirlwind,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “I think hearing all parties would be helpful.”
Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to have dinner with lawmakers on Wednesday night, which would be one of the first opportunities for Republicans to question a top Trump official, according to sources familiar with the matter.
House leadership has also been given little guidance on how to defend Trump or what the White House would like GOP lawmakers to say, two people familiar with the matter said. Privately, some in Speaker Paul Ryan’s office have expressed concerns with the White House, one administration official said.
Ryan offered some help to Trump on Wednesday when he said that some people want to “harm the president,” and said he still has confidence in Trump. The administration official said “we are pleased that Ryan said what he said. We needed him to say that.”
Still, there’s been little defense from the GOP about the existence of Comey’s memos. Instead Republicans want to subpoena those documents and have Comey testify publicly. And individual assessments of the White House have become more and more dire. McCain referenced Watergate at the International Republican Institute and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) deemed the White House in a “downward spiral” on Monday.
“What’s needed is more discipline and credibility,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).
“There has been no effort yet by the White House to reach out to conservatives or conservative groups,” added a Republican strategist with knowledge of top conservative groups and their activities.
Corker’s comment particularly troubled people in the West Wing internally and sparked serious discussion, according to a White House official. The official said Corker is viewed as an ally less prone to the public criticisms of people like McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), neither of whom supported Trump’s presidential campaign last fall.
McCain said his message was for Trump to channel Ronald Reagan’s approach on the Iran-Contra scandal and avoid a “Watergate” situation by getting as much information out as quickly as possible about the Comey imbroglio. It has not been heeded, he said.
“That was my message that I thought ought to be done rather than this drip system that we see so often,” McCain said. “I know what I want, but I can’t read the president’s mind. I’ve articulated in every way possible that that’s what we need to do.”
Few Republicans want to get dragged into the back-and-forth between the president and the former FBI director, leaving the White House fighting its battles solo. And even those efforts have been somewhat lifeless over the past 24 hours, which in turn gives GOP lawmakers little public direction.
White House officials Tuesday night wanted to swing at Comey’s credibility for not telling officials about the alleged conversation earlier, and to hammer him for having to correct his testimony about the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. But one senior administration official said there is a fear that attacking Comey will only precipitate more damaging disclosures.
It could also raise ire on Capitol Hill among Comey’s defenders, forcing Republicans to choose between Comey’s version of events or Trump’s.
“It’s all he said, she said right now. So I think people don’t know what to believe,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Republican officials said that the outreach they have received from the administration is focused on how lawmakers are digesting the latest Trump news, not on how to limit the damage from a deepening White House scandal. White House officials have received dour reports back from Capitol Hill’s cloakrooms.
Several Republican sources said they’re not sure if the White House fully realizes that the alleged Comey memos and accusations of obstruction of justice are going to be a big problem for Trump’s standing on Capitol Hill.
“I have been here for years and I have never felt the tension I felt on the floor yesterday,” said one House Republican source. “I was picking up on this vibe. It’s bad. It’s palpable, and it needs to be addressed by the White House because members are off floating around and not sure how to respond.”
Some lawmakers have reached out to the White House in advance to give them a heads up that they would be issuing a critical statement or press release, even if they haven’t gotten much information flowing their way.
One lawmaker who had been speaking to administration officials about unrelated issues was told offhandedly that the Comey memo’s account is “bullshit,” the lawmaker said. But most Republicans believe that it’s impossible to side with Trump until Comey’s memos are revealed and he testifies publicly.
“The truth will set you free but sometimes it will make you feel like hell,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “We need to go get the truth and let the chips fall where they may.”
To make matters worse, Republicans are still digesting the week’s first bombshell report: That Trump told Russian officials about classified information in a private Oval Office meeting last week. Senators had expected Pence to offer some defense of that story at Tuesday’s Senate GOP lunch, but he was instead at the White House meeting with the Turkish president. In the interim, officials distributed a handful of boilerplate talking points that few lawmakers used.
And while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was one of the few GOP lawmakers to get an extensive briefing on the meeting with Russian officials, he was left to guess what the White House’s message is on the Comey memo.
“I would imagine that the White House would argue that the president was in the meetings with Comey himself and they might have an alternative view of what happened,” Rubio said.
Some Republicans said they weren’t surprised by the lack of guidance from the White House. In a year of scandals, there’s been no attempt to coordinate a message with the congressional GOP to begin with, and few easy signals to read from the White House’s own statements.
“If you’ve got the president saying one thing and then staff saying another and the president coming back with a different message entirely, that is not a good way to do it,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “Right now, I think there’s probably pretty broad agreement that there are inconsistencies in the message.”
Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.