WASHINGTON – In its effort to regain control of its message, the White House has curtailed press briefings, redirected questions on the Russia investigation to an outside lawyer and planned a major infrastructure policy rollout for this week.
But as long as President Donald Trump has a smartphone, no White House strategy is safe.
The sun was still rising Monday when Trump upended best-laid plans with a blitz of provocative statements delivered via Twitter. He assailed his own Justice Department for its legal strategy to defend his travel ban, potentially creating new headaches as his administration seeks the Supreme Court’s backing for the order. And he renewed his criticism of the mayor of London, a city recovering from a weekend vehicle-and-knife attack that left seven people dead.
“To the extent that there is a process for making decisions and communicating them, he seems to ignore it more often than not,” Alex Conant, a top adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid, said of the president.
Indeed, the president’s free-wheeling, undisciplined style has made it nearly impossible for the White House to regroup after weeks of damaging reports about possible ties between his campaign and Russia, as well as a steady drumbeat of speculation about internal conflict and disarray. The struggle will come to a head Thursday when fired FBI Director James Comey is due to testify on Capitol Hill.
Efforts to create a “war room” stocked with former campaign officials and top-flight lawyers now appear stalled. Three people briefed on the matter said the process has been bogged down by a lack of decision-making in the West Wing over how to proceed, as well as reluctance from some of those the White House hoped to recruit about serving a president who keeps getting in his own way.
“Anybody with press chops looks at this and they’re fearful there’s not a path to succeed,” said Sara Fagen, former White House political director for George W. Bush.
Even George Conway, the husband of White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, appeared to give voice to the frustrations Monday. Mimicking a favourite Trump expression, Conway wrote on Twitter that the president’s comment on the travel ban won’t help the administration get votes in the Supreme Court, “which is what actually matters. Sad.”
Conway confirmed to The Associated Press that the tweet was authentic. His comments came days after he announced he was withdrawing from consideration for a top Justice Department post.
His wife took a different approach. During a Monday morning appearance on the Today Show, Kellyanne Conway condemned the media’s “obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president.”
Trump supporters have long touted his unfiltered tweets and other communications as an unparalleled advantage. Yet some allies are now urging caution given the legal questions shadowing the White House.
“My personal view is that there should be a review process because of the sensitivity of so many of them,” said Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend of Trump and CEO of the conservative outlet Newsmax.
White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that she was not aware of the president’s tweets being vetted by lawyers before being blasted out to the world.
White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short, meanwhile, insisted the president’s efforts were “often very effective” and said Trump was elected because voters were hungry for a non-conformist candidate who would change the culture in Washington.
“And so he may not have a conventional style in doing that, but many of his efforts are extremely helpful to us in getting our legislation accomplished,” Short said.
As part of the White House’s efforts to recalibrate, Sanders is taking on a more visible role at daily briefings instead of press secretary Sean Spicer, who has gained national celebrity for his often combative interactions with reporters. While Spicer did appear in the briefing room last week, his appearances were brief, including a 12-minute question-and-answer session that the White House would not allow to be aired on television.
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On Monday, Sanders took the podium and appeared to acknowledge for the first time that Spicer would be a less frequent on-camera presence for the White House.
“He is taking on a little bit of extra duty at this point,” she said. “There are a lot of demands on his schedule, particularly given the fact that there’s not a communications director.”
Mike Dubke resigned as communications director last month and served his final day in the White House on Friday. He has not yet been replaced.
The White House has made a conscious decision to avoid answering questions about the Russia probes, referring inquiries to Marc Kasowitz, the president’s outside counsel. Kasowitz has so far had no comment on the investigations, leaving those questions unanswered,
A trio of top White House officials – chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner – had been making plans to create an in-house “war room” to respond to the flood of revelations related to the FBI and congressional investigations. Both Corey Lewandowki, Trump’s former campaign manager, and David Bossie, another former Trump campaign hand, had been under consideration, but it appears increasingly unlikely either plan to formally join the administration.
The cloud of investigation – the very thing a White House war room would be set up to handle – has put even some of Trump’s backers and potential defenders in an uncomfortable position. One active supporter of the president said that while he was willing to defend Trump in public against allegations from Comey or Democrats, he was less comfortable weighing in on specific claims about Kushner’s interactions with Russian officials.
The supporter, as well as those briefed on the White House’s Russia response efforts, insisted on anonymity in order to disclose private deliberations.
The FBI is said to be looking into Kushner’s contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., as well as a meeting with a Russian banker. White House officials deny there was anything inappropriate about Kushner’s interactions.
An administration official disputed that there was reluctance to defend Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. The official noted that several top administration officials – including Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster – have vouched for him.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.