By Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker,
The White House has been thrust into chaos after days of ever-worsening revelations about a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a lawyer characterized as representing the Russian government, as the president fumes against his enemies and senior aides circle each other with suspicion, according to top White House officials and outside advisers.
President Trump — who has been hidden from public view since returning last weekend from a divisive international summit — is enraged that the Russia cloud still hangs over his presidency and is exasperated that his eldest son and namesake has become engulfed by it, said people who have spoken with him this week.
The disclosure that Trump Jr. met with a Russian attorney, believing he would receive incriminating information about Hillary Clinton as part of the Kremlin’s effort to boost his father’s candidacy, has set back the administration’s faltering agenda and rattled the senior leadership team.
Even supporters of Trump Jr. who believe he faces no legal repercussions privately acknowledged Tuesday that the story is a public relations disaster — for him as well as for the White House. One outside ally called it a “Category 5 hurricane,” while an outside adviser said a CNN graphic charting connections between the Trump team and Russians resembled the plot of the fictional Netflix series “House of Cards.”
Even Vice President Pence sought to distance himself from the controversy, with his spokesman noting that Trump Jr.’s meeting occurred before Pence joined the ticket.
Inside a White House in which infighting often seems like a core cultural value, three straight days of revelations in the New York Times about Trump Jr. have inspired a new round of accusations and recriminations, with advisers privately speculating about who inside the Trump orbit may be leaking damaging information about the president’s son.
This portrait of the Trump White House under siege is based on interviews Tuesday with more than a dozen West Wing officials, outside advisers, and friends and associates of the president and his family, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
The makeup of Trump’s inner circle is the subject of internal debate, as ever. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser; Jared Kushner, her husband and another senior adviser; and first lady Melania Trump have been privately pressing the president to shake up his team — most specifically by replacing Reince Priebus as the White House chief of staff, according to two senior White House officials and one ally close to the White House.
The three family members are especially concerned about the steady stream of unauthorized leaks to journalists that have plagued the administration over the nearly six months that President Trump has been in office, from sensitive national security information to embarrassing details about the inner workings of the White House, the officials said.
Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director, said: “Of course, the first lady is concerned about leaks from her husband’s administration, as all Americans should be. And while she does offer advice and perspectives on many things, Mrs. Trump does not weigh in on West Wing staff.”
Lindsay Walters, a deputy White House press secretary, disputed reports about Priebus’s standing. “These sources have been consistently wrong about Reince, and they’re still wrong today,” she said.
Trump recently publicly praised Priebus’s work ethic, and the chief of staff’s allies note that Priebus has done as good a job as can be expected under the unique circumstances of this administration. Defenders of Priebus have long said they expect him to make it to a year in the position, and Trump is said to be hesitant to fire him or any other senior staffer amid the escalating Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The mind-set of Trump Jr. over the past few days has evolved from distress to anger to defiance, according to people close to him. He hired a criminal defense attorney, but maintains that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. After his tweets commenting on the matter drew scrutiny, he agreed to his first media interview — with his friend Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity on his show Tuesday night.
One friend of Trump Jr.’s said the presidential son saw the Hannity appearance as an opportunity to give his version of Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, a 1952 address in which the then-vice-presidential candidate defended himself against accusations of financial improprieties.
Trump has had no public events since returning Saturday night from Germany but has been closely monitoring developments with his eldest son in the news.
Trump continues to view the Russia controversy as an excuse used by Democrats for losing an election they thought they would win — and an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of his victory, aides said. They said that the president’s frustration is based on the media coverage of his son’s actions, as opposed to the actions themselves.
“He just looks at this as the continuum of taking a group of unrelated facts and putting them together in concentric circles and saying, ‘Aha — look what happened!’ ” said Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a longtime friend of the president who was chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee. “With Don Jr., whatever set of facts there are may not lead to the conclusion that the establishment media is making.”
Trump and his advisers are deeply frustrated that the disclosure by Trump Jr. has overshadowed the positive coverage they expected to receive from the president’s trip abroad, as well as other issues they hoped to spotlight this week, such as the Senate health-care bill and trade.
A handful of Republican operatives close to the White House are scrambling to Trump Jr.’s defense and have begun what could be an extensive campaign to try to discredit some of the journalists who have been reporting on the matter.
Their plan, as one member of the team described it, is to research the reporters’ previous work, in some cases going back years, and to exploit any mistakes or perceived biases. They intend to demand corrections, trumpet errors on social media and feed them to conservative outlets, such as Fox News.
But one outside adviser said a campaign against the press when it comes to Trump Jr.’s meeting could be futile: “The meeting happened. It’s tough to go to war with the facts.”
In the West Wing, meanwhile, fear of the Mueller probe effectively paralyzed senior staffers as they struggled to respond.
No official has yet delivered a robust defense of Trump Jr., although Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy press secretary, told reporters Monday, “I would certainly say Don Jr. did not collude with anybody to influence the election.”
At Tuesday’s press briefing, Sanders read a brief statement from the president — “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency” — but declined to speak further on the issue, referring all questions to Trump Jr.’s attorney.
Other senior White House officials were hesitant to talk about Trump Jr. — even on the condition of anonymity — for fear of exposing themselves legally.
Some top officials, as well as outside advisers, had earlier suggested that the White House conduct its own internal review to identify any potential problem areas related to Russia so that it can release the information on its own rather than be caught unaware by news reports. But that notion went nowhere, in part because officials were afraid to discuss any potential Russia interactions that could make them targets of Mueller’s probe.
One White House official went so far as to stop communicating with the president’s embattled son, although this official spoke sympathetically about his plight, casting Trump Jr. as someone who just wants to hunt, fish and run his family’s real estate business.
“The kid is an honest kid,” said one friend of Trump Jr. “The White House should’ve never let that story go out on the president’s son. . . . What he’s upset about was that it was a minor meeting and the media glare — anything that’s Russia-related, gets picked up the way roaches get caught in a roach motel.”
Eric Trump, another son of the president, defended his older brother Tuesday night by retweeting a message from British politician Nigel Farage, who said Trump Jr. was under attack because he is “the best public supporter” of the president. Eric Trump tweeted: “This is the EXACT reason they viciously attack our family! They can’t stand that we are extremely close and will ALWAYS support each other.”
Critics of Trump Jr. counter that he should have known better than to accept a meeting with someone who was explicitly described in an email as a “Russian government attorney.”
“It wasn’t naivete,” said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama. “It was, ‘Oh, they have some dirt on our opponent and I’m eager to receive it.’ Nobody thought to think, ‘Well, how did they obtain that? Is this coming from the Russian government, Russian intelligence?’ Those are the kinds of obvious questions that should have been asked, in my opinion.”
Pence found out about Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian attorney Friday evening in advance of the first Times story, said one person familiar with the discussions. Both Pence and his team view the Russia coverage as a distraction and are working to keep the vice president clear of it and focused on Trump’s policy goals — such as health care, the subject of his scheduled visit to Kentucky on Wednesday.
“The vice president is working every day to advance the president’s agenda, which is what the American people sent us here to do. The vice president was not aware of the meeting,” Pence’s press secretary, Marc Lotter, said in a statement. “He is not focused on stories about the campaign, particularly stories about the time before he joined the ticket.”
On Capitol Hill — where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Tuesday that he is delaying his chamber’s August recess by two weeks — Republican senators were becoming increasingly frustrated with the White House, which they blame for Congress’s inability to pass any major legislation.
A growing number of senators believe that the widening Russia probe — as well as the Trump-fueled tumult that seems to dominate nearly every news cycle — have stalled their legislative agenda, leaving them nothing to offer their constituents by way of achievements when they head home over the break.
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