WASHINGTON – The snowballing revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer during last year’s presidential campaign have broadsided the White House, distracting from its agenda as aides grapple with a crisis involving the president’s family.
The public has not laid eyes on the president since his return from Europe Saturday. But in private, Trump has raged against the latest Russia development, with most of his ire directed at the media, not his son, according to people who have spoken to him in recent days. The only comment from Trump on the matter for much of the day came in a brief statement via spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said Tuesday that the president believes his son is “a high-quality person.”
The bombshell revelation that Trump Jr. was eager to accept information from the Russian government landed hard on weary White House aides. While staff people have grown accustomed to a good news cycle being overshadowed by the Russia investigations, Trump aides and outside advisers privately acknowledged that this week’s developments felt more serious.
Trump Jr. released four pages of emails Tuesday in which he communicates with an associate trying to arrange a meeting with a Russian lawyer. In the emails, the intermediary says the attorney has negative information about Democrat Hillary Clinton that is part of the Russian government’s efforts to help Trump in the campaign. The then-candidate’s son responds: “I love it.”
This new setback raises new questions about whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Moscow during the election, a charge the president has denied for months. And it points those questions more directly at the inner circle of Trump’s own family.
As has been the pattern for Trump’s White House, the controversy has sparked a new round of recriminations among the president’s team. Nearly a dozen White House officials and outside advisers spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the mood in the West Wing.
The president, in conversations with confidants, has questioned the quality of advice he has received from senior staff, including chief of staff Reince Priebus. However, Priebus has been a frequent target of criticism for months and even those taking aim at him now said it did not appear as though a shakeup was on the horizon.
There has also been a difference of opinion within the West Wing as to how to handle the crisis, with some aides favouring more transparency than others. Some of the unhappiness centres on Trump’s legal team, which is led by New York attorney Marc Kasowitz.
An unusual statement Saturday night from the legal team’s spokesman Mark Corallo appeared to claim Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort were duped into meeting with the Russian lawyer, and was viewed as particularly unhelpful by senior White House officials.
The revelations come at a pivotal moment for Trump and the Republican Party, as GOP senators race to finish work on a health care overhaul that has divided the party. Trump has largely stayed on the sidelines of the policy negotiations on the measure, but has still publicly pressed GOP senators to wrap up work on legislation this summer and fulfil one of the party’s central promises to voters.
On Capitol Hill, some Republican lawmakers cast the snowballing Russia controversy as a distraction from the health care debate.
“We ought to be disciplined and not be distracted by things that may be legitimate but not right now in our lane,” said Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
The matter has also distracted from a brief stretch in which some White House advisers believed they were finding their footing.
Trump aides, who view clashes with the media as central to the president’s agenda, were emboldened when three journalists from CNN resigned after the network withdrew a story about a Trump ally. Trump’s allies were also heartened by his trip to Europe last week, feeling that his speech saluting national pride in Poland was a high point of his presidency and believing that he held his own during meetings with foreign leaders at an international summit in Germany.
But the afterglow of Trump’s trip quickly vanished, replaced once again with questions about the swirling federal and congressional investigations into Russia’s election meddling.
And Trump allies took notice Tuesday when Vice-President Mike Pence distanced himself from the revelation by the president’s son. In a statement, Pence spokesman Marc Lotter said the vice-president “was not aware of the meeting,” adding Pence was “not focused on stories about the campaign especially those pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign.”
Pence was named Trump’s running mate in the middle of July 2016, several weeks after the meeting involving the president’s son.
Trump Jr, who is running the family business with his brother, huddled with friends and close business associates after the first stories dropped, his mood shifting from worry to defiance over the story’s lifespan, according to confidants. He has told those close to him that while he realizes the optics of the meeting aren’t ideal, he has echoed his father in believing that the media have overblown the matter and, despite some opposition among his allies, has said he wants to publicly fight back.
But White House aides struggled with bringing forth a strong defence against the scandal that also touched Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who attended the 2016 meeting. Though Sanders called charges of collusion “ridiculous,” the White House press briefing remained off-camera for the second consecutive day, limiting the power of her pushback.
And the president himself was slated to stay out of sight. He had no public events scheduled for Wednesday until he departs for another overseas trip, this time to France.
Lemire reported from New York.