The Trump White House appears finally to be heeding its lawyers’ advice and clamping down on what it says about the Russia investigation.
From the press secretary podium to the cable-news talk shows, President Donald Trump’s inner circle this week has mostly avoided responding to mounting questions about the congressional and special counsel probes into allegations the Republican’s campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election.
White House press aides since Tuesday have been directing all reporters asking about any of the probes to contact the president’s New York-based outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz.
But so far, Kasowitz’s office hasn’t responded to a single inquiry from POLITICO.
It hasn’t been complete radio silence from Team Trump. On Wednesday, the president tweeted that Democrats were on a “Witch Hunt!” because of a Fox News story reporting they’d nixed an invitation for testimony from former campaign adviser Carter Page.
Press secretary Sean Spicer and senior counselor Kellyanne Conway also briefly touched on the Russia issue Friday. Both said it’s up to Trump to decide whether to attempt to invoke executive privilege blocking next week’s public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee from former FBI Director James Comey.
But when pressed on other aspects of the Russia probe, like senior White House adviser Jared Kushner’s meetings during the transition with a Russian banker, Spicer again on Friday pointed reporters to the so-far-unresponsive Kasowitz.
On three occasions during his Friday briefing, Spicer haltingly read a statement identical to the one he first gave Tuesday directing questions to Kasowitz.
Asked whether he might be able to clarify whom reporters should contact in Kasowitz’s office with such questions, Spicer responded simply: “OK.” A White House spokeswoman later said that Kasowitz and his office are in the process of responding to inquiries.
Trump’s communications strategy for the high-profile investigation has been an ongoing source of contention as the scandal increasingly overwhelms his new administration. White House aides were caught flat-footed last month when Trump fired Comey and they hastily made a series of last-minute TV appearances to give their side of the story.
The president’s lawyers have also been urging more restraint, especially in the wake of the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel last month. One glaring concern: legal experts who say the president’s Twitter posts and other public utterances are already a “gold mine” for Mueller’s investigation team as they conduct their query and potential embark on any criminal charges.
The recent resignation of communications director Mike Dubke raises only further questions about whether the White House is prepared to address the torrent of questions.
“You’re trying to divine logic out of pure chaos,” said a former communications staffer from President Bill Clinton’s White House.
The Clinton aide, who now works in a private sector job with restrictions on media appearances, said Trump in some ways has begun mirroring an internal strategy the Democratic White House used as it dealt with investigations into everything from the president’s Whitewater land deals to Monica Lewinsky. They also didn’t take questions about controversial legal issues during the daily briefing. But Clinton’s approach also had a notable difference by directing reporters working on those stories to specific communications aides who were counseled by White House lawyers.
“At no time in the Clinton administration did we outsource this to a private entity. The administration took the decision that these were questions that deserved answers and the U.S. government should answer them and employees of the U.S. government should answer them,” the former Clinton aide said.
Trump’s communications team sending reporters straight to Kasowitz was a “step beyond anything that’s been done before,” the Clinton aide added. “They’re saying both that the government is no longer responsible for addressing these issues and someone who the president pays privately is. That’s new territory.”