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RNC scrambles to build ‘war room’ for James Comey testimony

The Republican National Committee is scrambling to organize a rapid response plan ahead of former FBI director James Comey's congressional testimony Thursday that includes surrogate bookings on national and local television, social media — including digital graphics and web videos — and minute-to-minute responses to the hearing.

With the White House declining to respond to the latest reports about the FBI's Russia investigation and the idea of an in-house "war room" falling apart, the job of building a traditional crisis team is being put on to the party's main political arm.

"We are working with our state parties and friends and allies just like the RNC always does with our friends and allies," said RNC spokesman Rick Gorka.

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Yet according to surrogates close to the White House, the talking points have been minimal. And there isn't the same robust, grass-roots operation and coordination between the RNC, outside groups and the White House traditionally seen around former presidents during critical moments, including the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation into Scooter Libby during George W. Bush's administration. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton's advisers also built a command center around responding to the latest twists in the investigation.

"They should have a group of advisers who are outside the bubble who are able to provide messaging counsel and advise," said John Brabender, a Republican strategist. "There's a tremendous amount of talent out there that would like to be available on an as-needed basis" for Comey's testimony and also more broadly, he said.

The RNC on Tuesday issued a release listing past statements from U.S. lawmakers questioning Comey's credibility, and said there will be calls later Wednesday organizing surrogates. Meanwhile, Comey's opening statement was released without a major presence of those surrogates on the television airwaves. The Trump team so far has been deflecting all inquiries about Russia to Marc Kasowitz, Trump's longtime attorney in New York, and so far only one outside group to preempt the Comey testimony. The Great America Alliance released an ad on Tuesday to bashing Comey as a "show boat."

Yet another outside group aligned with Trump said it has no plans to push back. "Unlike the main stream media, we are focused on the issues that matter to the American people and putting America First, not whatever narrative the press corps thinks is important," said Katrina Pierson, a spokeswoman for America First Policies, one of the outside groups formed to press Trump's agenda. Pierson was also a top surrogate on television for Trump during his campaign. Another outside group, Making America Great, advised by Trump confidante David Bossie, did not respond to a request for comment.

The apparent lack of a strong outside network is symptomatic of a president who has sidelined his communications professionals, including communications director Mike Dubke, who recently resigned, and a president who has decided he is his own best communicator. "This comes back to a more fundamental problem and that is that Donald Trump is not only president, but in some sense he's also the communications director," said Brabender.

In recent weeks, Trump has leaned into a strategy of using Twitter to communicate including on his "travel ban" and latest thoughts on the Russia investigation. He also plans to continue traveling to battleground states at least once a week, in a return to the campaign-style rallies that he feels suit him best and allow him to directly communicate with his voters, according to a source close to the White House who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Another complicating factor is that many of the president's closest allies and would-be organizers are themselves shrouded in the Russia investigation.

The FBI probe of Russian meddling is touching on the role of Jared Kushner, Trump's son in law and among his closest advisers. Kushner is under scrutiny by federal investigators for his contacts including with Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, who is connected to Vladimir Putin. And Steve Bannon is tied to Breitbart News, which is reportedly under examination for whether it played any role in last year's Russian cyberattack that promulgated false news stories about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee is planning its own rapid-response effort to the hearing, led by the same person, Adrienne Watson, who directed an outside group in responding to Hillary Clinton's Benghazi testimony in October of 2015.

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