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Scoop: White House begins prepping for Democratic legal storm

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Top officials inside the White House have taken their first steps to prepare for an onslaught of investigations if Democrats win the House.

What we're hearing: According to a source with direct knowledge, Chief of Staff John Kelly recently formed a small working group to start preparing for the possibility that Democrats will soon sic Congress' top investigators on Trumpworld. Senior White House staff have an offsite weekend retreat scheduled for late October. The agenda is expected to include a discussion of investigations under a Democratic-controlled House, according to the source.

To be clear: Team Trump is still trying to prevent a House flip from happening. They're ramping up political activities leading into the midterm — including a blitz of rallies from the president — to give Republicans their best chance of saving the House.

Why this matters: Polls show Republicans will probably lose the House in November. And Trump's team, including the understaffed White House Counsel's Office, must batten down the hatches for an onslaught from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

  • White House officials have been telling us for weeks they were worried that Kelly hadn't been taking the threat seriously enough. This is the first time I've learned new information to suggest that they're preparing.
  • According to three sources who attend senior staff meetings, when Kelly gathers the full White House senior staff in the Roosevelt Room several times a week, they never discuss the prospect of investigations.
  • "You'd think," one White House official told me, "we'd have a briefing or something to help us understand what's coming with subpoenas and investigations."

What they're saying: Over the past month, my colleague Evan Ryan and I have been interviewing lawyers who worked in the Obama and Clinton White Houses. We wanted to find out what it's like being inside a White House when the opposite party controls Congress and trains its investigative fire on the president.

  • A couple lawyers spoke on the record; most didn't. But what we learned from these conversations provides a map for Trump's likely future.

"Subpoenas flowing into a White House create paralysis," said Neil Eggleston, who was Obama’s White House counsel and an associate counsel in the Clinton administration.

  • "The whole system stops while everyone tries to comply with subpoenas and prepare to testify."
  • "The White House doesn't operate optimally, and the policymaking process doesn't receive its due attention. Morale suffers, and energy is diverted to the crisis at hand."

The big picture: Lawyers from previous White Houses mostly agreed on one thing: The better analogy for what's coming for Trump is not the Obama White House, but Clinton's.

  • Obama's administration faced scandals — from "Fast and Furious" to the IRS-Tea Party targeting to Benghazi. But his White House counsels managed to mostly keep the White House out of the picture; the agencies bore the brunt of the investigative onslaught.
  • But Bill Clinton spent his entire presidency under a cloud of investigation, from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky under the glare of Ken Starr. Staff who worked in the Clinton White House say it felt like there was a subpoena coming for them every day.

The bottom line: For the most part, the staff who work in the Trump West Wing — beyond the counsel's office — have no idea what may be coming for them. But senior staff are now finally preparing for a tough new normal under House Democrats.

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