The moment changed the news cycle. Trump “forced the media to cover our side of the story,” said a White House official involved in the communications effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about internal administration discussions.
But they were also celebrating a rare feat: The small team of officials in that room — pulled from the communications, legislative, digital and legal affairs departments in the White House — had just observed Trump following a talking point.
That had occurred because of an effort being managed out of a bunkerlike space underneath the Oval Office by temporary White House hires Tony Sayegh and Pam Bondi. What they are running is not a traditional war room but more of an anti-impeachment talking-point factory built for an impeachment battle playing out in a frenetic news cycle that burns through half a dozen fresh revelations a day. The environment favors Trump’s approach of repeating a single catchphrase endlessly until it sinks in.
Bondi and Sayegh have channeled that approach in an effort designed to appease both the president and nervous Republican lawmakers on whom the White House is relying as the impeachment proceedings have moved to the House Judiciary Committee, according to half a dozen current and former Trump administration officials who were interviewed for this story.
Bondi, 54, and Sayegh, 43, were hired on the eve of the House Intelligence Committees public hearings. Both are close to the Trump family. Bondi is a regular on Fox News and the first woman elected attorney general of Florida; she got to know Trump during his time there. Sayegh, who is from Brooklyn, served two years as assistant secretary for public affairs for Trump’s Treasury Department and is a favorite of Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.
Not insignificantly, White House aides say, they look like the kind of people the president wants to see on television. Sayegh is tall and athletic, and Bondi has long blond hair. Both declined to be interviewed for this story.
“This next phase of news coverage is going to be filled with red-hot partisan rhetoric that will probably make the hearings last month look rather tame,” said Ron Bonjean, a former spokesman for Republican congressional leaders. “Once the articles of impeachment are introduced, this will largely be a battle of communication, which means that the White House and Republican members will have to be working around the clock to ensure their messaging is carefully coordinated so they can effectively blunt the charges that will be leveled against the president.”
The White House has not turned over any documents to Congress and has directed key aides not to testify, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton. That strategy has made the messaging effort all the more central to the president’s survival.
'Zero for three'
At first, Trump resisted bringing in a team to coordinate his impeachment defense, telling aides and other lawmakers that doing so could make him look guilty.
Weeks of strained relations between Trump and congressional Republicans led him to complain that he was not getting enough support from them. They, in turn, griped that Trump was making their job defending him harder because of erratic moves such as his sudden withdrawal of troops from Syria and his decree — which was later rescinded — that he would host the Group of 7 at his Doral, Fla., golf resort.
Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (R-S.C.) held a news conference in October to drive home the point that the White House needed to get its act together. He praised the Clinton administration impeachment playbook for having lawyers on staff, staying on message and keeping Clinton publicly engaged in his day job. “I’m hoping that will become the model here,” he told reporters.
Trump was eventually convinced by Graham and other congressional allies, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), that he needed help.
Sayegh had helped oversee Trump’s tax overhaul as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s communications director, and Kushner and Ivanka Trump lobbied for his hire. Trump also wanted a lawyer on the team and reached out to Bondi directly.
He offered both Sayegh and Bondi temporary positions, and they quickly accepted. They briefed relevant GOP Senate and House communications aides before the start of public impeachment testimony before the Intelligence Committee, according to people involved in the meetings.
Sayegh and Bondi said that a main priority was maintaining Republican unity. They compared notes about which simple arguments would hold the party together and landed on the notion that Democrats have been itching to impeach Trump from the moment he was elected. They also decided to emphasize that they believe the process is unfair.
Still, the president was not entirely on message. Though Trump had been advised, as Graham suggested, to give the appearance of being hard at work, he evidently couldn’t resist weighing in on impeachment. He sent a tweet insulting Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, in the middle of her public testimony. Doing so was possibly “adding an article of impeachment real time,” according to Fox News’s Bret Baier, who was covering the live testimony.
But Sayegh and Bondi looked right past that gaffe. Nearing the end of Yovanovitch’s testimony, Sayegh and other members of the team, including Adam Kennedy, deputy White House communications director, texted congressional aides that the Democrats were “zero for three” on impeachment. “Zero for three” didn’t mention the treatment of Yovanovitch or her long record as a diplomat. Zero for three was easy shorthand that has been echoed by Trump supporters.
The message went as follows: Democrats had failed to demonstrate any impeachable offenses because, one, the financial assistance to Ukraine was eventually released; two, there was no bribery; and three, the Ukrainians didn’t know that the aid was held up. (These facts are in dispute. Top officials in Ukraine were aware that the aid was frozen in early August.) Zero for three also referred to the three witnesses who appeared that day, none of whom were deemed by the Trump spin machine as having demonstrated wrongdoing.
Bondi and Sayegh notched a victory when Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) opened one of his question sessions during the impeachment hearing that day with the words: “Zero for three.” Fox News guests repeated it throughout the channel’s prime-time broadcast.
'Part-time Trump whisperer'
Sayegh and Bondi have shied away from characterizing the president’s thinking, allowing them to avoid being contradicted by him, a regular occurrence for aides who try to speak to Trump’s state of mind. Often, his unexpected pronouncements force White House aides to “ride the wave,” a description aides use to describe their reaction to a news cycle resulting from one of Trump’s many contradictory statements, according to Bonjean, who is regularly in touch with White House officials regarding messaging. The anti-impeachment spin team has also stayed in close touch with Dan Scavino, White House director of social media, who helps manage the president’s Twitter feed.
Bondi and Sayegh also have relationships with some of the president’s most ardent defenders, the hosts of his favorite Fox News programs. Sayegh is close to Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs. Bondi is a repeat guest on Sean Hannity’s prime-time show.
And, Sayegh’s role in the 2017 tax overhaul put him in touch with some of the same congressional leaders he has to wrangle now in his new role. Sayegh’s name emerged as a possible successor to former press secretary Sarah Sanders, but the job was ultimately not his and he returned to New York to join Teneo, a consulting firm founded by former Bill Clinton aide Doug Band. (He is on leave from the firm.)
Bondi — who worked on the president’s opioid commission and with Kushner on prison reform — has kept herself in the Trump orbit. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, she watched the president sign the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, a favorite cause of the president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump. “Why hasn’t it — this happened a long time ago?” Trump said before signing. “And I give you the same answer: because Trump wasn’t President.” When Bondi was attorney general, she and Lara helped push an amendment in Florida that bans commercial dog racing in the state.
Bondi drew national attention after the Trump Foundation donated $25,000 to a political committee affiliated with her run for another term as Florida attorney general. The 2013 donation was controversial because it came as New York was pursuing legal action against Trump University, amid allegations that the school had defrauded its student body. (At the time, Trump officials said that the donation to Bondi was a mix-up and that they mistook her organization for one with a similar name.)
On the president’s recent flight to Florida for a rally to celebrate changing his permanent residence to Florida from New York, Trump invited Bondi on the trip. He sought out her advice on elements of his speech as well as her take on the impeachment hearings.
“He asked her how she believed different pieces of evidence were being perceived by the public,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), an ardent Trump defender who was also on the flight. He declined to discuss the specifics of their conversation but said that “Pam is part-time spokesperson, part-time Trump whisperer and part-time strategist.”
Gaetz and Bondi have known each other for years, and bond over their love of rescue dogs. Bondi was the godmother to Gaetz’s recently deceased Australian shepherd mix. “She and I are both single people in politics, so we have special connections to our animals,” he said.
While Sayegh has more relationships on Capitol Hill than Bondi, the Floridian “regularly texts and emails with supportive documentation on issues she thinks should be raised,” said Gaetz.
On Monday morning, Bondi appeared on “Fox & Friends” and was on message: “I have never seen our party more united,” she said, a message that has been important to deliver to Republicans who might consider defecting from the party line. “[Democrats] are dead set on taking out our great president,” she added, “and we’re not going to let it happen.”
But there have been some gaffes. In an early appearance on “CBS This Morning” before Sondland’s testimony, Bondi identified him as the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine. He is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
'Attack the process'
A mainstay of Sayegh and Bondi’s strategy — that the process is unfair — hews to a well-worn page in the political communicator’s handbook. “If the facts are not on your side, attack the process,” said Jen Psaki, who held various communications roles in the Obama White House and State Department. “That’s what they’ve done, as well as sprinkle in some conspiracy theories just to make it confusing.” Psaki added that she counts Sayegh as a friend, “even though he is working for the evil empire.”
Doug Sosnik, who was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton during the last impeachment, recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that despite efforts to appear unaffected by efforts to remove a president, “impeachment owns you, all day long.”
That has been particularly true for this president. “From the outside, it feels like this impeachment fight is the only thing he cares about and talks about, and he seems obsessed with ‘the witch hunt,’ ” said Joe Lockhart, who served as Clinton’s press secretary during his impeachment fight.
In an interview Wednesday, Graham said he realizes that Trump won’t ever be “a casual observer and just focused on his day job,” but Bondi and Sayegh have helped to sharpen the White House message. “I just think it’s been a game-changer since they were hired. Most Republicans feel a lot better now,” Graham said. “There was a lot of anxiety, and it seemed that different people were saying different things every day. And now you see a much more disciplined approach.”
Sayegh and Bondi have also been actively conducting regional radio interviews, sometimes twice a day, “to do an end-run around the mainstream media, like we always have to do,” said a Trump official involved in the communications effort. They and other Trump surrogates have been focusing on stations in congressional districts that Trump won in 2016 but that have Democratic representatives.
Whatever the facts, the spin will continue as impeachment presses forward. But one Trump administration official involved in the communications effort said this is only the beginning: “When the hearings are over, that’s when we can play full offense.”