by Michael Crowley · March 2, 2017
On Thursday night, President Donald Trump tried to deflect attention by claiming the controversy was a “witch hunt” and that not enough attention was being paid to the leaks. | Getty
As Donald Trump’s White House was engulfed Thursday morning by the latest twist of the long-running scandal about his team’s ties to Russia, the president and his advisers had an immediate worry — that the glowing coverage of his Congress speech was being stepped on.
The White House initially was caught flat-footed by reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had two meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, something he specifically denied under oath during his confirmation hearings.
And while Trump and his White House privately complained that the story would likely overtake the generally positive coverage of his Tuesday night address to Congress and blunt his momentum, some of his aides got to work confronting the latest flare-up in just one of the scandals plaguing Trump’s early presidency.
The episode provides a window into a nascent White House that is struggling to cope with — and attempt to manage — the frequent controversies that distract from their attempts to drive home the message that Trump is off to a rollicking start, creating jobs, combating terrorism and generally getting America back on the right track.
Instead of traveling with Trump to Norfolk, Virginia, for his public event aboard a new aircraft carrier, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon stayed behind to huddle in the West Wing about how to alter a destructive narrative, propelled by leaks coming from across the federal government, according to an administration source.
“They’re hunkering down,” said one Trump ally close to the president and many in the administration.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
As part of the damage control, White House press secretary Sean Spicer sat down with Fox News on Thursday morning to forcefully assert that Sessions had been “100 percent straight” during his confirmation testimony when he said he “did not have communications with the Russians.” Spicer accused Democrats of pushing “a false narrative for political purposes.”
He insisted there was no reason for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations, as he attempted to refute leaked reports that law enforcement officials and intelligence agencies are probing whether Trump campaign advisers had frequent contact with the senior Russian officials before the election.
“There’s nothing to recuse himself from,” Spicer said.
But there was little White House outreach to Capitol Hill, where several increasingly concerned Republicans broke with the administration by expressing concerns about the revelations, calling for answers about Session’s apparently misleading Senate testimony and, in many cases, calling for him to recuse himself from an investigation into Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election and any other probes that could involve Trump.
The president was largely silent throughout the day, only tweeting in the morning about the soaring stock market. But when asked by reporters in the early afternoon about whether Sessions should recuse himself, Trump was emphatic. “I don’t think so at all,” he said. “I don’t think he should do that at all.”
By late Thursday afternoon, however, the Justice Department had called a news conference, in which Sessions, a former Trump campaign adviser, said he would recuse himself, telling reporters that he informed the White House of his decision to do so before it was announced.
While the statement created the appearance of Sessions’ independence from Trump, it still represented a jarring turn of events.
“I did share with White House counsel — and my staff has — that I intend to recuse myself this afternoon,” Sessions said. “But I feel like they don’t know the rules, the ethics rules. Most people don’t. But when you evaluate the rules, I feel like that I am — I should not be involved investigating a campaign I had a role in.”
The development at least temporarily cooled the furor over Trump and his associate’s ties to Russia, even if Sessions is still facing scrutiny over whether he misled senators.
One person familiar with Trump and the White House dynamics said the president wouldn’t be too upset if the commotion dies down, and “it doesn’t splash up on him.”
“He doesn’t mind someone getting kicked around if it doesn’t hurt him personally,” he said.
On Thursday night, Trump tried to deflect attention by claiming the controversy was a “witch hunt” and that not enough attention was being paid to the leaks.
“Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong,” Trump said in a statement. “The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and now, they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!”
But Trump’s Russia problems aren’t going away.
Sessions’ recusal likely puts the decision in the hands of Rod Rosenstein, the yet unconfirmed deputy attorney general, who will face continued pressure to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Russia controversy. According to a senior administration staffer, the White House is determined to avoid such a fate, nervous about the Russia story dominating the news for months and imperiling the administration’s already complicated legislative agenda and its efforts to right itself after a difficult start.
Once a special prosecutor is appointed, the independent investigation has the potential to broaden in scope as it did in the 1990s when what had been a probe into the Whitewater scandal morphed and ultimately uncovered President Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
The administration also has to reckon with GOP lawmakers reluctant to go to bat for the White House over the Russia-related scandals.
Despite the administration’s protestations, the story quickly cracked the resolve of congressional Republicans to stick to the White House’s preferred script. A number of Republicans wasted little time Thursday morning in joining Democrats’ calls for Sessions to recuse himself.
Three GOP senators: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine, all called for Sessions to recuse himself. “Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe,” Portman said in a statement.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, and several other Republican House members echoed that sentiment. Perhaps the loudest canary was Rep. Barbara Comstock, a conservative Republican and former deputy attorney general to John Ashcroft, who said Sessions “needs to recuse himself in any Justice Department investigations related to Russian interference in the 2016 election.” Sessions, she continued, “also needs to clarify any misconceptions from his confirmation hearing on the matter.”
In general, most Republicans have been reluctant to distance themselves from the new administration until now. “This feels different,” one senior GOP Senate staffer said. “It’s not that anyone wants to make the White House look bad, but this is bigger than them. It’s about our national security and the integrity of our democracy.”
The administration’s eagerness to beat back news reports related to the ongoing Russia investigation also has the potential to backfire. Last week, the White House was fixated on corroborating its counter-narrative following a CNN report about the FBI rebuffing Priebus’ request to publicly refute prior stories about communications between Trump campaign advisers and Russian intelligence officials. With Comey indicating he was unable to speak publicly about an ongoing investigation, Spicer enlisted the help of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes in knocking down the idea that investigators were probing something serious.
But the collusion only sowed more doubt about whether Nunes, a member of the Trump transition, could be charged with overseeing a congressional investigation that would be truly independent, giving rise to louder calls that a special prosecutor be appointed.
On Thursday, Nunes repeated his claim that he still has yet to receive evidence that Sessions or anyone else affiliated with the Trump campaign made any contact with Russian officials. Meanwhile, Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, accused Comey of withholding information about any Russia probes from the panel.
John Dean, White House counsel to President Richard Nixon during Watergate, said the current administration is “not acting like they’re trying to uncover the tr uth,” during an interview on MSNBC Thursday afternoon. “They are in full cover-up mode,” Dean said.