Six days ago, President Donald Trump was planning to spend his Sunday morning in Bogota, conducting breakfast diplomacy across from the leader of Colombia, a burgeoning US ally.
Instead, he spent the morning in front of his White House televisions, dispatching tweet after tweet lambasting the FBI director that he fired and the allegations levied in his still-forthcoming book.
James Comey, the President fumed, is a “slippery” “slimeball” who should be tossed in jail, with a “badly reviewed” and “FAKE” memoir, only confirming his rank as the “WORST FBI Director in history, by far!”
“He was making decisions based on the fact that he thought (Hillary Clinton) was going to win, and he wanted a job,” Trump declared in one tweet, sent at 7:42 a.m., referring to Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe.
“I hardly knew this guy,” Trump lamented in another an hour later, denying Comey’s claim that he’d demanded his loyalty.
It was a test page of insults and rebuttals, a see-what-sticks strategy for a President who finds himself under increasing siege amid multiple investigations and legal battles. For White House aides, it was a predictable outcome to a book that alleges not only ethical lapses, but also insults the President’s appearance and intelligence.
Even as Trump evaluates the limited strikes he ordered on Syrian regime positions and prepares for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, officials say the Comey matter has consumed his attention as more details from the book come to light and clips from his debut interview with ABC begin airing.
The White House had developed a plan alongside the Republican National Committee to rebut the claims in Comey’s book and impugn Comey’s character, including launching a “Lyin’ Comey” website and distributing talking points to surrogates. People close to the President say he was mostly expecting the negative portrait Comey paints in his book, including describing disputed events like a dinner at which Comey claims Trump demanded his loyalty. Trump has long denied making that request.
But one person close to Trump said the President was caught off guard by the personal nature of Comey’s attacks, including his description of Trump as a mafia boss and his wry jabs at Trump’s appearance, including his description of Trump’s face as “slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles.”
Trump has personally asked his aides to defend him on television against Comey’s claims, according to people familiar with the requests, including on Friday morning after details of the book began emerging. Some of his outside advisers have expressed concern that a sufficient defense isn’t in place to counter Comey’s upcoming television interview spree.
If Sunday was any evidence, however, Trump has largely taking his defense into his own hands, even as some of his aides insist he is focused elsewhere.
“The President will have his say, either through those of us who do speak on his behalf or on his own,” said presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway on Friday. “He’s a busy guy. He’s the President of the United States.”
Trip postponed, distractions continued
Trump was originally meant to spend the weekend in South America, attending a leaders summit in Peru and sitting for bilateral talks in Colombia. On previous foreign trips, Trump has remained largely quiet on Twitter. But at the urging of his new national security adviser, John Bolton, Trump scrapped the trip to remain at home. The White House said his attention was required on the Syria matter.
For the past week, however, his deliberations over ordering punitive strikes against the Syrian regime for a chemical weapons attack on civilians in a Damascus suburb were interspersed with new details emerging from Comey’s book, along with the news that his personal attorney’s office and hotel room had been raided by the FBI.
There were moments — including during a meeting with senior military leaders on Monday evening — when Trump’s mind seemed focused entirely on the growing legal challenges. As top-ranking brass sat with downcast eyes and unmoving expressions, Trump tore into his Justice Department using withering, partisan language.
The distractions continued all week. As final preparations were being made for the Syria strikes on Friday, Trump still found a moment to phone Michael Cohen, his attorney, to check in. And he personally dictated a set of tweets about Comey, declaring him a “proven LEAKER & LIAR,” as details from his book began emerging.
On Sunday, Trump’s envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, insisted the President had spent the week focused on foreign policy, demurring on questions about the Sunday morning broadside against Comey.
“I haven’t watched TV to watch that,” she said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “I’ve been very focused on foreign policy. I think the President’s been focused on foreign policy, from the meetings I have been in.”
Indeed, it is foreign policy that aides hope will occupy the President’s mind as Comey begins making television rounds this week. On Monday, Trump departs for a full week at his Florida estate, where he’ll host Japan’s Abe on Tuesday and Wednesday. He also has upcoming meetings in Washington with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and is still preparing for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un within the next two months.
But even those occasions are unlikely to divert the President’s mind from the ever-expanding controversies. Seemingly by the day, the legal distractions have mounted. And next week will provide little respite.
ABC is set to air its full interview with Comey on Sunday evening. And on Monday, Cohen is scheduled to appear before a US district judge in New York to explain his business practices, which have allegedly included orchestrating hush money payments on Trump’s behalf.
Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who alleges she had sex with Trump and was paid for her silence, will be sitting in the courtroom.