By the time the White House’s No. 2 spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders stepped up to the podium Monday, concerns over the Trump-Putin meeting were amplified by the revelation that the president’s eldest son had met during the campaign with a Russian lawyer whom the younger Trump was told had dirt on Trump’s Democratic rival, according to the Times.
The White House tried to veer away from those controversies, drawing attention to administration nominees they say Senate Democrats are blocking and presenting a rosy picture of efforts to rally Senate Republicans around health care reform legislation.
But the Russia controversies once again commanded the spotlight.
Kremlin questions pile up
Sanders — speaking once again off-camera — was deluged with questions that underscored the rollicking 72 hours of fallout from Trump’s encounter with the Russian leader, a period marked by clashing accounts of that meeting, eyebrow-raising Trump tweets and criticism from fellow Republicans aimed squarely at Trump.
Following the treasury secretary and national security adviser’s lead, Sanders declined to contradict the Kremlin’s account that Trump “accepted” Putin’s denial of election-meddling.
“The President heard Putin’s denial,” Sanders said. “He heard his answer and he moved forward with places that they thought they could work together.”
The lack of pushback on the Kremlin’s account sent a stark message from the White House: That Putin’s denials are at least on par with the US intelligence community’s conclusions that Putin directed a campaign to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
And Sanders again opened the door to the “impenetrable Cyber Security Unit” that Trump raised and killed in the space of a day on Twitter amid widespread criticism from Republicans like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who mocked the irony of collaborating with Russia on cybersecurity.
“Discussions may still take place,” Sanders said, after noting the “need to have conversations with our adversaries.”
And after a brief attempt to swat away criticism surrounding the revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. had met — alongside Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — with a Russian lawyer, Sanders said she’d have nothing further to add on the matter.
That story is not likely to be short-lived. It has already prompted calls from members of Congress for further scrutiny and is likely to add to the pile of Russia-related questions that Trump’s nominee for FBI Director Christopher Wray will face Wednesday when he heads to Capitol Hill for his first confirmation hearing.
The barrage of questions on Russia-related matters was nothing new to a White House that has been buried week-after-week by developments in the investigation into ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia, and scrutiny over Trump’s relatively amiable posture toward Russia.
And once again, the barrage was also a sign of a missed opportunity.
“If Trump had said to Putin — and afterwards to the public — that interference is absolutely unacceptable, that we won’t allow it and will take steps to prevent it in the future, he might have begun to get ahead of this issue. But he bungled it badly,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a Columbia University professor who served as ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union in the Clinton administration.
“By showing he can’t handle Putin, he may even have made his problem worse,” said Sestanovich, also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump tweets, but not seen
Trump, meanwhile, remained behind closed doors on Monday — continuing to avoid the press after he bucked the precedent set by the last two presidents and declined to hold a news conference at the G20 summit.
He did take to Twitter — not to reaffirm his support for the US intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling — but to say he and Putin discussed the Democratic National Committee’s refusal to turn over its hacked server to the FBI for inspection.
The latest drop in what’s become a squall of Russia-related controversies once again clouded the White House’s efforts to make progress on policy fronts.
As the Senate returned from recess facing daunting odds of passing health care reform, the White House was once again mired in controversy rather than working to publicly sell the health care bill.
But even as the number of Senate Republicans opposed to the health care bill backed by the White House rose to 10 after senators returned home to face their constituents, Trump had no public events on his schedule Monday and is not expected to make a public push on health care before leaving for France later this week.
The lack of any public advocacy from the president came even as the White House’s director of legislative affairs Marc Short said Monday that “there’s more we could do to educate the public.”
“It’s a fair point that the Democrats were more organized in their messaging on the bill than collectively Republicans have been,” Short said, acknowledging the current bill’s abysmal approval rating.
The lackluster public engagement from the President — who has continued to speak directly with Senate Republicans, according to White House officials — has left many Republicans scratching their heads or questioning Trump’s commitment to the legislation’s passage.
Doug Heye, the former communications chief to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, noted that Trump could “be very influential” in pressuring several GOP opponents of the current bill who represent states he won handily in 2016 if he headed to those states to boost the health care bill, similarly to how President Barack Obama rallied support for the Affordable Care Act before it passed.
“The only dynamic between where we are now and the past Republican struggles to pass any healthcare legislation is that we’ve got a Republican in the White House,” said Heye, a CNN political commentator. “Whether that’s Donald Trump or Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio — that should be enough. If there’s a fully engaged effort, that should be enough to get it over the finish line.”
Trump has held some public events at the White House to push the health care bill, he has held no public events outside the White House aimed solely on selling the legislation and raising pressure on fellow Republicans.
While White House officials considered such rallies to push the health care bill, a White House official told CNN aides to the president moved away from that idea — seeking to put some distance between the president and the increasingly unpopular bill.