Trump’s White House struggles to get out from under Russia controversy
President Trump entered his 11th week in office Friday in crisis mode, his governing agenda at risk of being subsumed by escalating questions about the White House’s conduct in the Russia probe — which the president called a “witch hunt.”
Trump and his senior aides spent much of the day on the defensive, parrying the latest reports that senior administration officials had potentially acted improperly in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the U.S. elections and possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended the actions of three senior White House aides who, according to media reports, helped facilitate the visit of the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), to the White House grounds last week to view classified intelligence documents.
“What he did, what he saw, who he met with was 100 percent proper,” Spicer said of Nunes.
The chairman later briefed the president on the information and declared publicly that the documents showed Trump campaign aides were swept up in U.S. intelligence surveillance of foreign nationals. That prompted the president to say he felt “somewhat” vindicated in his unsubstantiated allegations that President Barack Obama had ordered a wiretap on him.
Trump, meanwhile, weighed in again Friday via Twitter by suggesting that he supported a request by his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, for immunity from prosecution in exchange for offering to testify in the probe.
“This is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems,” Trump wrote.
Spicer said the White House was not concerned that Flynn might reveal damaging information, even though Trump fired him in February over revelations Flynn misled senior officials, including Vice President Pence, over his communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
But Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, called it a “grave and momentous step” for a national security official to seek immunity.
Schiff said the investigation “grows in severity and magnitude by the day,” and he said the committee has “much work and many more witnesses and documents” to review before any witness can be considered for immunity.
For the White House, it was another chaotic day in which its attempt to regain control of the political conversation — this time through two executive orders on trade — was relegated to an afterthought in Washington.
Trump aides have expressed growing frustration at their inability to gain control of Washington’s narrative, just over two months into the president’s tenure. And amid mounting attention on Trump’s frequent weekend jaunts to his winter retreat in Palm Beach, Fla., and attendant golf-course outings, aides said the president would remain in Washington this weekend holding meetings at the White House.
Trump has a lot to prepare for, with three world leaders — Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Chinese President Xi Jinping — due to meet with the president next week.
In many ways, the first weeks of the Trump White House have resembled a chaotic tech start-up. Inside the West Wing, according to White House officials, each new crisis and mishap, including the botched rollout of the president’s travel ban and the failure on the GOP health-care bill, has been viewed as a learning opportunity, to better understand what works and what doesn’t, as well as which staffers can perform under pressure — and, perhaps more importantly, which can’t.
On Thursday, the administration announced its first major staff adjustment, with Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh leaving to oversee an outside political group that supports the president’s agenda.
The official explanation was that after the health-care bill’s collapse, Walsh realized she could be of more value to the White House from the outside, helping guide a pro-Trump group that has provided almost no air cover for the president or his agenda.
But Walsh, one of the few top women in the West Wing, was never a likely fit in the Trump administration. A longtime confidante of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who had served as the Republican National Committee chairman, Walsh viewed Trump with skepticism throughout much of the campaign. And, in return, she was treated with suspicion by Trump loyalists who distrusted her background in mainstream Republican Party politics and thought she leaked information to the press, according to several administration officials.
The White House took the unusual move of having several aides gather a small group of reporters to insist, on background, that Walsh was not being fired and was simply leaving on her own accord.
By Thursday, senior aides were trying to beat back vaguely sourced reports on social media that Rick Dearborn, a deputy chief of staff who oversees legislative affairs, might also be on his way out. David Urban — who served as chief of staff to Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and helped run Trump’s campaign team in that state — was cited as a possible replacement. Urban’s name is often mentioned during times of turmoil, and he was previously floated as a possible replacement for Priebus.
Three White House officials insisted that Dearborn’s job was safe, and Cliff Sims, a Trump communications aide, lashed out at reporters on Twitter.
“Get a grip . . . And better ‘sources,’ ” Sims wrote.
But it was the Russia probe that continued to dominate the conversation in Washington, forcing the White House into a reactive posture for another day.
As the disclosures have mounted over communications between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials during the campaign and transition, the White House has sought to distance itself from the conduct of some members of the president’s campaign team.
But the revelations that three senior White House aides, including the top lawyer for the National Security Council, were involved in the handling of the files that were shared with Nunes has raised new questions about the conduct of the president’s staff.
“It’s shocking,” said Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration. “I used to work at the White House. I used to work at the NSC. . . . I never, ever briefed a U.S. congressman on anything in that capacity, and I’m not aware of anyone who did when I was there.”
Spicer dismissed suggestions that Nunes was granted carte blanche access to the White House’s 18-acre grounds, which includes the NSC headquarters in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door.
“Yes, it is appropriate for a member of Congress to contact someone who contacted him,” Spicer said, referring to reports that Nunes had chosen to meet his source for the information at the White House to view the documents in a secure location. “As Chairman Nunes said himself, he was not hiding or roaming. He was asked to come over here by an individual. He came over, which happens daily.”