For 24 hours last week, Trey Gowdy, the former South Carolina congressman best known for leading congressional investigations of Hillary Clinton, was the new face of President Trump’s outside legal defense and a symbol of a streamlined effort to respond to a fast-moving impeachment inquiry.
A day later, the arrangement fell apart, with lobbying rules prohibiting Mr. Gowdy from starting until January, possibly after the inquiry is over. Now, according to two people familiar with events, Mr. Gowdy is never expected to join the team. And Trump advisers are back to square one, searching for a different lawyer.
How a celebrated announcement quickly ended in disarray offers a rare public glimpse into the internal posturing — and undercutting of colleagues — that has been playing out in the West Wing on a daily basis since Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry last month. Even as the White House confronts a deepening threat to Mr. Trump’s presidency, it has struggled to decide how to respond, and who should lead that response.
This article is based on interviews with a half-dozen aides and other people close to Mr. Trump.
The official story, circulated by senior administration aides to a handful of reporters, was that Mr. Gowdy, who retired from Congress last year, had agreed to re-enter the fray on Tuesday. Mr. Gowdy’s name began circulating on Twitter as the new Trump defender, prompting a number of aides to the president to claim credit privately for the idea of bringing him on board.
But by Wednesday evening, aides were distancing themselves from the bungled personnel maneuver, which was made public before all the usual procedural boxes had been checked. Several pointed fingers at Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, suggesting he had botched the rollout.
For weeks, aides had been pushing Mr. Trump to add another lawyer to the outside team, and Mr. Mulvaney had suggested Mr. Gowdy, a former prosecutor. Mr. Trump needed another voice on television defending him, and Mr. Mulvaney wanted someone who understood how Congress works.
Some White House officials checked whether Emmet T. Flood, the lawyer who oversaw the administration’s response to the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, would get involved. He was not available.
As Mr. Mulvaney pushed for Mr. Gowdy, a former House colleague and fellow South Carolinian, he swatted away questions from several aides about whether Mr. Gowdy would be curtailed in his role by lobbying regulations. Both men assured people that there would be no problem, according to the people briefed on what took place.
Not everyone was on board with the idea. Among those generally concerned about someone working specifically on impeachment outside the White House Counsel’s Office was the White House counsel himself, Pat Cipollone, according to three people involved in the discussions. Mr. Mulvaney and Mr. Cipollone have repeatedly been at odds since the impeachment inquiry began, with one disagreement about hiring an additional lawyer taking place in front of Mr. Trump, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
Mr. Trump told the two aides to work it out on their own. A person close to Mr. Cipollone denied that there was concern about bringing aboard another outside lawyer.
Before Mr. Gowdy could be added, however, Mr. Trump needed to meet with him. So the two sat down for lunch at the White House on Tuesday; Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, joined them for part of the meal.
It went pleasantly enough, people briefed on what took place said, despite Mr. Trump’s skepticism of Mr. Gowdy, who has often tried to distance himself from the president. But by late in the day, Mr. Trump signed off on hiring Mr. Gowdy. Still, there were procedural issues to be dealt with before he could formally be announced, and some advisers to the president wanted to wait to make the move public. Those advisers were stunned to see the news emerge from the White House on Tuesday night.
But for Mr. Mulvaney — who has never been fully empowered in the Trump administration, with “acting” always part of his title — it was a rare internal victory. And the announcement that a well-known fighter like Mr. Gowdy was joining the team hinted that the Trump operation was finally organizing around an impeachment strategy.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers worked on a letter for Mr. Gowdy to sign to cement their agreement. Around 8 p.m. they released a statement announcing that Mr. Gowdy was formally on board.
“Trey’s command of the law is well known, and his service on Capitol Hill will be a great asset as a member of our team,” Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow said in the statement.
But within 30 minutes of that statement’s going public, Mr. Gowdy alerted Mr. Trump’s lawyers to a problem. His law firm, Nelson Mullins, had concerns that his work would involve lobbying activity. There was a discussion about whether Nelson Mullins could still be used, but a Trump adviser said that decision had been put off until January, when Mr. Gowdy’s lobbying ban concludes.
“Trey Gowdy is a terrific guy,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Thursday, on his way to a campaign rally in Minneapolis, breaking the news himself. “He can’t start for another couple of months because of lobbying rules and regulations. So you’ll have to ask about that.”
In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s team is searching, again, for help.
Without Mr. Gowdy, who lost his paid contributorship at Fox News after the announcement, and with another of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, sidelined from appearing on television for the moment as he is drawn increasingly into the Ukraine matter at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, the president’s team remains outgunned in the fight for public opinion.
Even Mr. Trump — who for the most part has been operating as a one-man war room, setting the tone of grievance from the top — appears confused about which of his staff members is in charge.
The president, at one point, asked Mr. Mulvaney who was leading the effort. Mr. Mulvaney, who often invokes Mr. Kushner’s name around Mr. Trump to show that he has a good relationship with the family, passed the buck to Mr. Kushner.
Mr. Kushner, who aides said had been spending many hours on impeachment as part of his broader portfolio of defending the president, has told some people he is running the inquiry response and played down that idea with others.