Under fire over Russia investigation, White House officials choose to change the subject

President Trump
President Trump walks to a meeting with House Republicans to encourage a deal on the American Health Care Act.
(Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency)

After the heads of the FBI and the National Security Agency denied President Trump’s claim that then-President Obama had wiretapped him, Trump’s Twitter account provided the best clue to how the White House would respond: Tuesday morning, it was silent on the subject.

Trump had started the day Monday with a tweet storm defending himself against allegations that his campaign had cooperated with Russian efforts to affect the 2016 election. He’s spent days quadrupling down on his unsubstantiated insistence that Obama had surveilled Trump Tower in New York.

But that sometimes-manic flurry of counterpunches has done little if anything to help the president, who has been frustrated by how controversies get in the way of his agenda, even as his own words often keep those controversies alive.

Some of Trump’s advisors think House Republicans could have done a more forceful job at Monday’s hearing of defending the president. Democrats spent much of the hearing laying out the circumstantial evidence for improper contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials.


Rather than lash out or try to rebut the Democrats’ case, however, White House aides have counseled the president to change the subject and talk about his sales pitch to members of Congress on healthcare and his Supreme Court nominee.

Tuesday, he followed that counsel. Trump spent the morning in meetings on Capitol Hill helping to whip up votes for the replacement of the Affordable Care Act, and his aides thought he had won over several Republicans who were on the fence. He hosted senators in the Oval Office to sign a bill increasing money for space exploration.

His tweets focused on National Agriculture Day and NASA.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump’s focus on the immediate issues in front of him was nothing new.


”He’s focused on healthcare and his agenda,” Spicer said in an interview. “I think everyone needs to stop reading into the tea leaves. The president was clearly highlighting his agenda and the need to get Obamacare done.”

Others, however, said the restraint was a sign of the influence of advisors who have learned that in political trench warfare, digging deeper doesn’t help.

The Russia news may just have to pass through like bad weather, said one White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Investigators have been working the case since the summer and haven’t found evidence of collusion between campaign aides and Russians, the official noted.

“It’ll work itself out eventually,” the official said, taking an optimistic, Zen-like approach to one of the most consequential setbacks the president has faced.

That’s a view shared, at least in part, by strategists who have worked with other Republican administrations.

“They need to focus on the things they can control,” said Kevin Madden, a former senior advisor to Mitt Romney. “The best way to put Monday in the rear-view mirror is to get a win on Thursday with the healthcare bill.

“If you follow the cable networks — and this White house is very sensitive to the cable network coverage — the optics of going up to the Hill to fight for one of his signature initiatives works because it shifts attention away from yesterday’s hearing and also draws a contrast with Obama’s disengagement with Congress over the last eight years,” Madden said.

The opposite argument is that, like criminal investigations during the Nixon, Reagan and Clinton presidencies, the FBI’s Russia inquiry will probably touch more Trump associates over time and become a drag on his presidency for months and years.


During President Clinton’s tenure, when multiple investigations threatened to derail policy, the White House farmed out many of the responses to outside counsel and crisis managers “so as much bandwidth as possible could be focused on the president’s agenda,” Michael Feldman, a former senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore, said in an interview.

Trump has not only been unable to “compartmentalize” the Russia investigation and minimize its impact on his agenda, he’s “thrown accelerant” on the story, Feldman said.

Indeed, windows of calm have rarely stayed open more than a few days for Trump. The president has often preempted the news cycle with a tweet in response to a television show he watched or an off-the-cuff answer he gave to a question shouted by the press.

His young presidency has featured a constant give-and-take between Trump’s instinct to punch back hard against enemies real or imagined and aides who want the president to focus on moving his agenda forward and see the Russia and wiretapping controversies as diversions.

The way diversions keep popping up creates several dangers for the White House, including the risk that Republican lawmakers who have to go home and face questions from constituents could become frustrated with Trump’s lack of discipline, said Reed Galen, a Republican strategist who worked in the George W. Bush White House.

Even when Trump tries to stay on script, his efforts have included some glitches, Galen noted. During his visit to Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, for example, he publicly hinted that he might retaliate politically against Republicans who don’t vote for the healthcare bill.

“I am sure from time immemorial the White House has threatened members of Congress privately, but it is not very often that is done in public,” Galen said.

Trump is “a master of media but unwilling to control the chaos he creates,” Galen said. “Every day there is some crisis. It is incredibly difficult because the president is the one causing it.”


Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), a veteran lawmaker often at odds with his party, said that in his 22 years in Congress he has never seen an administration get off to such a chaotic start.

“They have a lot of issues they’re dealing with outside of the Congress. It’s just a different personality. I would have thought by this time he would say, ‘I made a mistake in accusing the previous administration of wiretapping my building,’” Jones said.

In the Oval Office on Tuesday, after Trump placed his signature on the space exploration bill, a reporter shouted out a question to Trump: “Are you still sure Obama wiretapped you?”

This time, Trump didn’t answer.

Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett


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