In January 1998, when news of the investigation into Mr. Clinton’s relationship with Ms. Lewinsky first broke, the White House was blindsided and had to build a rapid-response operation and legal team from scratch. Mr. Trump, in contrast, spent almost two years fighting the special counsel’s investigation and lived with the threat of impeachment hovering over him since the early days of his administration.
But so far, there is little in terms of structure, and nothing in terms of discipline, emanating from the president.
“It’s very, very difficult, not because the White House counsel isn’t capable of that, but because Trump forces people out of their lane and into defending him,” Mr. Podesta said. “That’s the wrong strategy. The only way to survive is to keep focused on trying to act like you’re still the president of the United States.”
On Thursday, two days after Ms. Pelosi began a formal impeachment inquiry, Mr. Trump appeared to be letting the story overwhelm everything else. While Joseph Maguire, the acting director of National Intelligence, defended the rights of the whistle-blower while testifying in front of the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Trump was comparing him to a spy.
“You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right?” Mr. Trump told a stunned group of staffers from the United States Mission to the United Nations on Thursday and their family members “We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
For now, the White House is planning to allow Mr. Trump to run his own show. It hopes the president’s ability to use the internet to amplify a message means Mr. Trump won’t need the same kind of structure that helped the White House respond to a slow-moving impeachment inquiry in the 1990s. And with sympathetic Fox News hosts, as well as conservative news outlets like Breitbart amplifying attacks on Democrats and support for Mr. Trump, the White House today has what is essentially an independent rapid response team working that they don’t even need to direct or bankroll.
Mr. Mulvaney briefly floated the idea of bringing in Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager who has been mulling a run for Senate in his home state of New Hampshire, to help lead some of the White House’s anti-impeachment messaging from the outside, according to two people familiar with what took place. But others close to Mr. Trump said that Mr. Lewandowski’s combative turn as a witness before the House Judiciary Committee recently could complicate that kind of role, and the idea was quickly sidelined.