White House aides feel blindsided by the bombshell revelations around Donald Trump Jr.’s campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer, while the president is using his relatively light schedule to watch TV and fume about the latest scandal, according to interviews with half a dozen White House officials and advisers.
Unlike prior Russia-related controversies, the White House is not minimizing the political ramifications of Trump’s eldest son’s decision to meet with the Kremlin-linked lawyer after being offered information that he was told would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
But top West Wing aides are exasperated by their limited ability to steer the damage control and the risk that more damaging news has yet to emerge.
One Trump adviser said the White House was "essentially helpless" because the conduct happened in an "anything goes" campaign that had few rules. This person said he had spoken to several people in the White House on Tuesday, and that "none of them knew anything about Donald Trump Jr.’s meetings,” despite the fact that top adviser Jared Kushner was also present for the controversial Trump Tower sit-down.
Many of the White House aides had previously dismissed the Russia stories as "conspiracy bullshit," this person said, but that this scandal was not being dismissed as that.
Trump had been silent for days about the controversy around his son. His first public response came in the form of a brief statement delivered by White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday: “My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency.”
On Tuesday evening, Trump encouraged his Twitter followers to watch his son on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show, adding, “He is a great person who loves our country!”
One White House aide said the president’s light public schedule was a function of his upcoming trip to France on Wednesday — and that "it makes sense that you have a couple days off between the one last week and this one."
But a second official said Trump’s schedule was unusually light — and that he had been watching TV news and venting about the investigation. He hadn’t expressed any specific opinions about Trump Jr., this person said, but didn’t like that it was generating more negative coverage.
Others in the White House have been more explicit about their frustration with Trump Jr., who served as an adviser and surrogate for Trump’s campaign but has no official role in his father’s administration. Instead, he and his brother Eric Trump have taken over the day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization.
Some in the West Wing have seen Trump Jr.’s defenses – including his decision to post the damning email chain setting up the meeting — as tone deaf and naïve about the political ramifications, according to a White House official.
And since Trump Jr. is not a White House employee and represented by his own lawyer, the White House communications operation has had to take a back seat, while holding their breath for the next batch of revelations.
What the core issue will be going forward, the Trump adviser said, is that the "Russia story will get worse and worse, and you can’t just really say anymore, fake news."
This person said the White House has "very little to no role" in coordinating a response.
There’s also tension inside the White House as Vice President Mike Pence’s communications team issued its own statement, appearing to distance Pence from the president. Some West Wing aides felt particularly bruised by the line that he’s "not focused on stories about the campaign, particularly stories about the time before he joined the ticket," seeing it as an admission of guilt on the part of the campaign, according to a White House official.
Some of the most vocal defenses have come from cable news surrogates such as former campaign communications aides Anthony Scaramucci and Brian Lanza, who have gone to bat for Trump Jr. without the urging of the White House.
"I’m absolutely 100 percent confident, and I know that he did not nothing wrong," Scaramucci told POLITICO. "He has very high integrity. There were countless meetings that led to nowhere during the campaign and this was one of those meetings."
While chief of staff Reince Priebus and top adviser Kellyanne Conway initially offered full-throated defenses of Trump Jr., the White House has since been less vigorous. The White House has not held on-camera briefings, instead pushing out Sanders to hold shorter off-camera sessions with reporters.
Many of Trump’s aides feel that knowing less is more when it comes to the Russia probe, as many staffers don’t want or have the extra resources to spend on lawyers. Some have linked the White House press shop’s relatively laid-back response to the latest scandal as a product of their fear of being entangled in the Russia probe.
The lack of full-throttle response from the White House has lowered morale internally, especially among those who are worried about policy initiatives including health care and tax reform falling to the wayside, according to one White House official.
"How much longer can we assume that the American people don’t care about Russia?" the official mused.
But in some corners of the West Wing, Tuesday was business as usual. One White House official said National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn had attended meetings on tax policy Monday and Tuesday, and that some other officials such as chief strategist Steve Bannon had continued to talk about Iraq and Qatar. Marc Short, the head of legislative affairs, visited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
Some White House aides were in frequent contact with their State Department counterparts, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tries to navigate a diplomatic solution among the Gulf States regarding Qatar.
Hill aides, however, said it was frustrating that the White House had no public focus on health care.
Trump, one senior GOP aide said, could be using his Twitter feed to make the case for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Instead he railed about the slow pace of appointments, tweeting on Tuesday morning, “The Senate Democrats have only confirmed 48 of 197 Presidential Nominees. They can’t win so all they do is slow things down & obstruct!”
"It doesn’t make any sense to me why they are focusing on appointments," this person said. "It’s the thing they’ve done the worst."
White House aides and advisers also spent part of the day guessing who was leaking — and what their motivation was.
Trump Jr. had looped in then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and senior adviser Jared Kushner to the email chain, and including them in the meeting with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, at Trump Tower.
"There’s only a few names on those emails," one person close to the White House said. "And it would have to be someone out to get the president’s son."
There’s a general feeling of paranoia in the West Wing about who leaked details of the meeting, with speculation that it may have come from within the White House.
But one White House aide said, "There’s no way to know.”