Updated 6:23 p.m. | Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s explosive comments about the firing of former FBI Director James B. Comey is pulling administration officials away from their intended messaging about two federal hurricane responses and a quest for bipartisan tax legislation.
White House officials set up a week featuring a series of high-level meetings, including several involving President Donald Trump and key lawmakers, meant to portray him and his senior team as aggressively working with members of both parties on issues such as revisions to the tax code, racial tensions, and other matters.
Then they threw in a Thursday trip to Florida, which would allow the White House to continue casting Trump as a skilled manager who has led the government through relief efforts for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
During opening remarks at the daily press briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cited the hurricane response message to pivot to a legislative agenda that features the courting of Democrats after months of Trump and senior aides bashing them as “obstructionists.”
“He wants to continue building unity by working on more issues supported by both parties,” Sanders said.
She then announced Trump would host a group of Republican and Democratic senators for dinner Tuesday evening at the executive mansion. Topic A will be a tax overhaul push that the White House wants to try to pass with some Democratic support.
Earlier Tuesday, Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, told reporters administration officials learned the hard way from a failed health care effort that they can’t count on passing bills with just Republican support. But he also called finding the eight Democratic votes to clear a possible 60-vote threshold on a tax measure a “challenge.”
For the second consecutive day, Sanders was confronted with a topic White House officials believed they had put behind them: Comey’s firing. The decision by Trump led his own Justice Department to appoint another former FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, as special counsel to look into possible ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin.
Sanders was again asked about Bannon’s recent remarks to CBS’ “60 Minutes” that firing Comey was perhaps the biggest misstep in “modern political history.”
She again defended the president on a matter White House officials thought they had moved on from months ago.
“The president is proud of the decision he made. The president was 100 percent right in firing James Comey,” Sanders said. “He knew at the time it could be bad for him politically, but he also knew he had an obligation to do what was right.”
An influential ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sided with the White House over Bannon on the firing of Comey. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has defended Trump's decision.
“Steve Bannon is dead wrong. Every fact that has come out about James Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation has affirmed the rightness of President Trump’s decision,” Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, said in a statement.
Bannon is preparing a campaign via his Breitbart News Network to take on the Washington “swamp,” and is expected to targeted incumbents and other so-called GOP establishment candidates whom McConnell and Law likely would back.
Comey was not the only former Trump foe that Sanders lashed out at Tuesday.
She also had some harsh words for the president’s 2016 general election foe, Hillary Clinton.
“I think it’s sad that after Hillary Clinton ran one of the most negative campaigns in history and lost … the last chapter of her public life is going to be now defined by propping up book sales with false and reckless attacks,” Trump’s top spokeswoman said.
In her new book about the election — “What Happened?” — Clinton has more than a few sections critical of Trump, according to excerpts.
“Attempting to define reality is a core feature of authoritarianism,” Clinton wrote in one section.
“This is what the Soviets did when they erased political dissidents from historical photos. This is what happens in George Orwell’s classic novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ … For Trump, as with so much he does, it’s about simple dominance,” she wrote.