THE MEMO: White House fails to fend off Russia questions


President Trump’s Russian troubles are multiplying — and even some Republicans are wondering if the White House can stop the problems from becoming a full-blown crisis.

“I think they’ve handled it quite badly because they haven’t been forthcoming,” said Peter Wehner, who served as deputy director of speechwriting in President George W. Bush’s White House. “This is a classic case of drip-drip-drip, where they say certain things that are disproven as later facts are revealed.”

Wehner is among those Republicans who have long been critical of Trump. But even some of the president’s GOP supporters are critical of the White House’s response to allegations of Russian meddling.

A longtime Trump ally, granted anonymity to speak candidly, echoed Wehner’s “drip-drip-drip” description of the situation and complained, “They have handled this so poorly.” 

{mosads}The issue of alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia has been bubbling since last summer.

But it exploded once again this week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would recuse himself from any investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election campaign. Sessions’s decision came under pressure after the Washington Post revealed he had met twice during 2016 with Sergey Kislyak, the Kremlin’s ambassador to the United States.

Those meetings appeared to contradict Sessions’s sworn testimony during his Senate confirmation hearing, when he told Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that he did not have “communications with the Russians.”

The Sessions furor wiped out the sense of momentum that Trump had begun to build with his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening. The speech was widely hailed as one of Trump’s best moments since he became president. But the positive atmosphere lasted only about 24 hours before the Sessions bombshell hit.

The administration has already suffered the loss of one major name in a Russia-related controversy. Retired Gen. Michael Flynn resigned after the shortest tenure in history as national security advisor, amid reports that he had misled Vice President Pence over the nature of his conversations with Kislyak last December. 

The Trump administration has pushed back against allegations of chicanery involving Russian intelligence services with broad assertions that no wrongdoing has taken place.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted to reporters during a Thursday gaggle that “there’s no ‘there’ there.”

The press secretary added:  “The bottom line is that, for six months now, we’ve heard the same thing over and over again — unnamed sources talking about nebulous, unnamed things … At some point, you have to ask yourself where the ‘there’ is.”

The president himself has sought to cast the Russian stories as part of a Democratic-led plot to delegitimize his election win. 

In a series of Thursday evening tweets, he defended Sessions and added: “This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win. The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election, and now they have lost their grip on reality.”

Those broad claims, however, have been hindered by the Flynn and Sessions controversies.

“Facts are stubborn things. Bad ones in particular. You can’t ignore them. Wish them away. Or deny them,” said Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel for President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Davis is a columnist for The Hill and an expert in crisis management with Washington law firm Davis Goldberg Galper.

Davis said Trump could only bring the Russian travails to an end by observing the mantra of “tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.” 

“It’s coming out sooner or later. So you have no choice but to follow this advice and let the truth chips fall where they may,” he said.

In the absence of such a house-cleaning, however, the danger for the Trump administration is that it gets damaged by a constant stream of stories. Even if no single one is devastating, the cumulative effect could corrode the president’s standing.

There have been plenty examples just in recent days. 

Details have emerged of a meeting with Kislyak at Trump Tower that was attended by Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. 

Former campaign adviser Carter Page gave a contentious interview to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Thursday. On his own encounters with Kislyak, Page said, “I may have met him, possibly; might have been in Cleveland.” 

And the Wall Street Journal reported that the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was “likely paid at least $50,000 for an appearance late last year before a French think-tank whose founder and wife are allies of the Russian government in efforts to end the war in Syria.” 

It may ultimately be the case, as the Trump administration insists, that there is nothing damning in the substance of these stories. People close to Trump feel they have been unfairly treated in the media maelstrom.

In an interview with The Hill last month, former Trump adviser Roger Stone insisted that allegations he had ties to Russia were false.

“I had no Russian contacts, no Russian intermediaries, no Russian clients, no Russian money. It’s a canard. It just doesn’t exist,” Stone said.

Trump’s original campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, on Friday pushed back vigorously against reports, which originated with a reporter for the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, that he had approved a trip to Russia by Page last summer.

“I’ve never met this person in my life,” Lewandowski told The Hill, referring to Page. “He never worked on our campaign when I was the campaign manager.” 

Pressed on whether there could be any truth to the idea that he approved such a trip, Lewandowski replied, “Zero.”

But broader damage is already being done every day.

Wehner recalled his experiences in the Bush White House when a scandal erupted that ultimately saw Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, then chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, convicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

“There is pressure and there is tension. You never know what other people may have done when you’re in there,” Wehner recalled. “It’s not fun.”

More ominously, Wehner added that the ineffectiveness of the Trump White House in pushing back against stories related to Russia was stoking ever-greater suspicion.

“The bigger question is less how they have handled it from a communications standpoint — which is poorly — but why they have felt the need to handle it the way that they have,” he said.

“The reason, I suspect, is that there is quite a hot fire under the billows of smoke.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Al Franken Donald Trump Jeff Sessions
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