White House Braces for Staff Exodus
Bloomberg, By Shannon Pettypiece
October 29, 2018
White House officials are largely resigned to losing Republican control of the U.S. House and are bracing for an exodus of staff worried about a torrent of subpoenas from Democratic congressional investigators.
President Donald Trump’s team still sees a possible path to victory. But talk of a “red wave” has ceased, advisers inside and outside the White House said. Trump last uttered the boast in public in August. The mood around the president has darkened as many challengers continue to out-raise seasoned Republican incumbents and Democratic enthusiasm surpasses that of the GOP.
Bill Stepien, the White House director of political affairs, is already laying the groundwork to shift blame away from Trump should the party lose the House. He argued in an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg that the GOP has been hindered by historical headwinds, a wave of incumbent retirements, and strong fundraising by Democratic challengers.
Trump has seized on the disparity in fundraising and privately complains Republican candidates haven’t done enough to raise money, one aide said.
The president’s determined to fight to the end, though, and plans to hold 10 rallies in eight states in the campaign’s final stretch. His team hopes to gain one or two seats in the Senate, where the electoral map is favorable to Republicans this year, and plans to stress its importance for continuing conservative judicial appointments, said one person familiar with the White House’s messaging strategy. Stepien set the bar lower, declaring in his memo that “not losing Senate seats” would be “a victory of historic proportions.”
In the House, Trump is battling to save seats that once would have been viewed as safe. On Saturday, that meant using valuable time 10 days before the election to fly to southern Illinois for a rally to shore up Representative Mike Bost, who is struggling against a Democratic challenger in a district Trump won by 15 percentage points in 2016.
White House aides are painfully aware of what a Democratic House would mean -- two years of subpoenas, investigations, and obstruction. For staff already exhausted by the perpetual crises of the past two years, the post-election period will provide a natural exit ramp. Finding replacements for those staffers could be a struggle.
“How do you restaff with top quality folks knowing that you’re going to be subpoenaed? If you go in, you better be wealthy because you’re going to need to pay a lawyer,” said Steve Bannon, the former White House adviser who has had to hire his own lawyer to respond to inquiries about his time in the administration. “This whole thing is psychological warfare, and it’ll affect the ability to attract great people.”
The White House Counsel’s Office, which usually handles the response to Congressional investigations, is unprepared for the task, said a person familiar with the situation. The new counsel, Pat Cipollone, named earlier this month to replace Don McGahn, arrives to face a heavily depleted staff. All but one of the office’s deputy counsels have left over the past year, and much of the remaining staff is likely to follow McGahn out, the person said. Cipollone, who once worked at the Department of Justice but has spent most of his career in private practice, has limited experience dealing with large-scale Washington investigations.
Still, Trump’s team had been encouraged in recent weeks following the battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the emergence of the so-called migrant caravan, both of which the White House saw increasing Republican enthusiasm about the elections. But those events have since been overshadowed by a string of mail-bomb attacks against prominent Democrats and a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Trump’s closing strategy has been to lean into his most polarizing issues, stoking voters’ fears and pushing aside more positive messages about the economy. That message is now at odds with the calls for national unity and healing that followed attacks motivated by political and religious animus.
The Trump camp’s internal polling has consistently shown immigration as the top issue to motivate the president’s supporters, said a White House aide. Trump’s advisers have called the caravan of migrants coming from Honduras a political gift, and Trump’s used it to stir up voters’ fears, claiming, without evidence, that it contained gang members and Middle Easterners.
Polling and fundraising trends indicate Democrats have a good chance of gaining the net 23 seats needed to take control of the House if they can carry suburban districts where Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 2016 or came close to winning, while also holding the 13 Democratic seats where Trump won. Democrats are counting on a strong showing from women, younger voters and Hispanics to help offset Trump’s base.
Polls Echo 2006
Democrats have an 8 percentage point lead in “generic” national polls on which party’s candidate voters prefer for Congress, according the Real Clear Politics average of recent surveys, the same edge Democrats held heading into the party’s 2006 electoral sweep.
Republicans have an advantage in the Senate, though, because only about a third of the seats are up for election. Democrats have to defend 26 of the 35 seats on the ballot in 2018, including 10 in states Trump won in 2016.
Democrats have openly declared that, if they win control, they plan to make full use of broader subpoena powers Republicans established for the House majority through a 2015 rule change. Democratic committee chairs can use their authority to dig into the activities of Trump, his family and his administration if their party controls the House.
Among the issues Democrats have indicated they’d like to target are Trump’s tax returns and family business, the president’s ties to Russia, and the administration’s hurricane response. Democrats may also start impeachment proceedings against Trump if Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation turns up wrongdoing, though the president cannot be removed without a two-thirds majority of the Senate.