The world was waiting for a tweet that never came.
All day Thursday, President Trump had nothing to say — on his preferred medium of Twitter or anywhere else. He let others do his talking.
During James B. Comey’s extraordinary Senate testimony, it was Donald Trump Jr., the president’s 39-year-old son, who played his father’s usual role of Twitter foil, firing off snarky put-downs.
“Is this a joke?” Trump Jr. asked at one point.
It then fell to Marc E. Kasowitz, the president’s personal lawyer, to deliver Trump’s formal response: A scathing, pugnacious rebuttal declaring the president’s innocence, implying that Comey lied under oath and labeling the former FBI director a “leaker.”
Trump let Kasowitz have the last word — at least for the moment.
A president who earlier in the week had been spoiling for a fight with Comey — and who sees his Twitter feed as both megaphone and weapon — was convinced by Kasowitz and his senior aides to stay cool and lay low, according to about a dozen White House officials and other Republicans close to Trump, some of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
“The best thing said on this is nothing,” said former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Trump friend and former Justice Department official. “Kasowitz, who is a fine lawyer, answered it — and I know from personal experience that he has the president’s trust.”
Kasowitz and White House advisers, including chief of staff Reince Priebus and counsel Donald F. McGahn, argued to Trump that they had a rapid-response operation in place Thursday to defend him as vociferously as he would defend himself, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump agreed Wednesday not to directly engage on Comey, and by the time the ousted FBI director took the witness stand, tweeting “was not something he was considering,” said one senior White House official.
“Kasowitz was able to persuade the president that he would not give a Washington-style, tepid defense,” said a top Republican figure who is close to the White House. “Trump’s big charge with his staff is that they don’t defend him aggressively. And Kasowitz convinced him that not only will I defend you, but I will attack Comey where there’s room to.”
Kasowitz, a New Yorker who most recently defended Bill O’Reilly from allegations of sexual harassment at Fox News Channel, has counted Trump as a client off and on for many years. His combative presentation was on full display Thursday as he read from a statement that contained two typos. (He misspelled “president” as “predisent,” and the surname of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats as “Coates.”)
Trump watched some of Comey’s testimony in the morning with legal and political advisers in a small dining room off the Oval Office outfitted with a 60-inch television, but his aides also scheduled counter-programming in the form of meetings and public events.
Later in the morning, for instance, as Comey was still testifying, Trump met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster about foreign policy issues.
Trump sent no tweets, ignored questions about Comey called out by reporters and stuck largely to his script by not mentioning the issue in a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The one potential exception came in a line he delivered in the context of religious liberty that could also be interpreted as an indirect reference to the Russia probe.
“We are under siege, you understand that,” he said.
Trump’s advisers and allies — some of whom consider the president’s Twitter presence self-destructive — celebrated the restraint he displayed during the day and kept their fingers crossed as the sun started to set. “It’s not ‘mission accomplished’ yet,” one ally said Thursday evening.
Trump, who is known to record major congressional hearings and other cable news shows on his TiVo device, was almost certain to flip on the television after retiring to his private living quarters after dinner, one White House official said. And there is Friday and the weekend to come. Sometimes Trump takes hours or even days before launching tweetstorms, taking time to absorb and stew over how an event is being covered in the media before popping off.
Throughout the day Thursday, the White House sought to project an air of calm.
“In terms of the mood in the White House, I would say that it’s a regular Thursday at the White House,” said principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “We’re carrying on.”
Lara Trump, one of the president’s daughters-in-law and a former campaign aide, entered the White House press room Thursday afternoon and told reporters that she had just met privately with Trump and “he looks very relaxed” and is doing “as well as anyone could do” under the circumstances.
Trump considers himself to be his most effective spokesman and advocate — something his actual spokesman, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, is quick to remind reporters.
Several people close to the president pointed to Kasowitz as the most obvious explanation for Trump’s sudden restraint, recalling that Trump has often spoken of the attorney as a “killer” in the positive sense.
“Marc is one of the few people who can speak as if he was Trump himself,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media, a conservative media organization, and longtime Trump associate. “His reputation as a tough, no-nonsense, New York litigator fits well with the president’s view that the best defense is a strong offense.”
Trump’s frequently impulsive and incendiary tweets may galvanize his base of supporters, but they create political headaches in Washington for him and his staff. Trump’s advisers have conceded that his past comments about Comey and the Russia investigations have sometimes been unhelpful to the president’s cause and only expanded “the cloud” over them, using one of Trump’s phrases for the controversies that surround the White House.
“It shows the president understands the possible legal ramifications,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser. “Everybody was waiting for the tweets, but there was nothing to gain. It’s important that Kasowitz, who is rough around the edges, was guiding him. Trump trusts he’s not trying to settle, so he will listen.”
Veteran Washington lawyers described Trump’s restraint as surprising based on his history of lashing out at critics, but fitting for how a president should behave during thorny legal moments.
“It’s a really good thing that the president’s not tweeting, and it’s a good thing that he’s letting his lawyer talk,” said Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel under President Clinton. “So much of the difficulty that the White House now faces is the product of the president’s own words, which have simply provided ammunition to those who want to rev up this investigation.”
With an ongoing federal probe into Russia meddling in the 2016 election — now being led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, following Comey’s May 9 firing — they said caution was the wisest course of action.
“I don’t think he needs to be in front of the cameras. It’s fine for his lawyer to make a statement,” C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel for George H.W. Bush, said. “It was appropriate, as well as pretty routine.”
The discretion inside the West Wing did not extend to the Republican Party or to members of the Trump family.
At the Republican National Committee, dozens of staffers issued a barrage of tweets and barbed statements. One RNC email sent to conservative news organizations on Thursday morning criticized Comey as being “against leaks before he was for them” and said he was “forced to admit that he leaked his own memo.”
The RNC’s Twitter account used the hash tag #BigLeagueTruth — a reference to Trump’s frequent use of the phrase “big league” — mock the witness as “James ‘I could be wrong’ Comey.”
Donald Trump Jr. and other high-profile Trump supporters also took to social media and television with rebukes. During the Comey hearing, the Drudge Report, a conservative website, made sure to link to Trump Jr.’s Twitter account with the headline, “DONALD JR: LIVE.”
Typing out live reactions to his more than 1.6 million followers, Trump Jr. cast his father as vindicated by Comey’s testimony and balked at Comey’s uncertainty about whether he was pressured to back down.
“Knowing my father for 39 years when he ‘orders or tells’ you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means,” Trump Jr. wrote.
When a conservative operative wrote that Trump Jr. was the “best follow” of the day, the presidential son replied, “Thanks. That was fun.”
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Republican allies were relieved by Trump’s relative calm.
“He avoided any temptation to respond to what the Democrats were saying,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said. “I think they convinced him there was no reason for him to say anything, to not get bogged down in the swamp. Be presidential, go out and do the job, and don’t take the bait.”
Abby Phillip contributed to this report.