Exclusive: Trump doesn't fault son for meeting Russian lawyer1:11
U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his eldest son as "innocent" following the release of damaging emails on his ties to Russia, but the controversy is plunging the White House back in crisis. Andy Sullivan reports.
DONALD Trump was pleased after last weekend’s G20 summit in Germany. He had managed to flip the script on the story that had plagued his whole presidency when he did what many pundits thought he would not: He confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about his government’s meddling in the US election.
Mr Trump also won praise for a rousing speech in Poland espousing the virtues of the West, and managed to clinch a ceasefire deal for southern Syria.
But when he touched back down in the States on Saturday night, he returned to furious headlines related to the story he had hoped to kill off once and for all: The suspicions that his campaign had colluded with Russia to sway the election in his favour.
About the time Mr Trump was flying back from Europe on Air Force One, The New York Times was poised to break the story that Mr Trump’s son and namesake had held a meeting with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin before the US election.
The new revelations became especially damaging a few days later when an email chain revealed for the first time that someone close to Mr Trump knew of a Russian government campaign to support his bid for president.
Worse than that, Donald Jr jumped at the chance to receive Russian information that could incriminate Hillary Clinton and help his father.
Mr Trump was first made aware of the meeting just before the story broke and, by Wednesday, the issue had become a full-fledged firestorm that has once again pushed Mr Trump’s agenda off the front page.
Now, reports are streaming out of Washington that the White House has been “paralysed” by the revelations and senior aides are scrambling to contain the damage.
One White House ally told The Washington Post that the story was a “Category 5 hurricane”; another adviser told Politico that White House staffers were blindsided by news of the meeting and were “essentially helpless” to spin it due to the “anything goes” attitude during the campaign.
The New York Times likened the tensions in the White House to a “circular firing squad”, where staffers were blaming each other for the story being mishandled this week.
Vice President Mike Pence didn’t help matters when his spokesman released a statement distancing himself from the meeting, saying he was “not focused on stories about the campaign — especially those pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign”.
Since returning to Washington from Europe on Saturday night, Mr Trump has had no public engagements, except for submitting to an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Politico reported that Mr Trump has been “using his relatively light schedule to watch TV and fume about the latest scandal”.
Meanwhile, the frustration of staffers at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave has turned to paranoia as suspicion deepens over who may have leaked the details about the meeting to The New York Times. The assumption is that the leak came from within the White House.
“It would have to be someone out to get the President’s son,” a person close to the White House told Politico.
Indicative of the reported dysfunction within the White House was the fact that it took four days for the President to offer a full-throated defence of Donald Jr.
The best Ms Huckabee Sanders could muster on Tuesday was a one-line statement from the President — “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency” — before referring all further questions to Donald Jr’s lawyers.
“My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!” he tweeted.
Mr Trump is clearly frustrated by the relentless media focus on the links between Russia and his team.
A few hours after his defence of Donald Jr, Mr Trump returned to Twitter to reject reports that there was chaos within the White House.
“The W.H. is functioning perfectly, focused on HealthCare, Tax Cuts/Reform & many other things,” he said.
His spokeswoman admitted on Tuesday that he was unhappy with the coverage.
“I think that the President is frustrated with the process of the fact that this continues to be an issue and he would love for us to be focused on things like the economy, on healthcare, on tax reform, on infrastructure,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in an off-camera briefing.
“And that’s the place that his mind is, and that’s what he’d like to be discussing.”
The biggest problem about the email chain is that its explicit mention of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump” means it is no longer possible for the White House to dismiss the story as “fake news”.
The President has long argued that the story about Russian meddling in the election and the Washington inquiries into it were a “witch hunt” designed to delegitimise him as president and justify Mrs Clinton’s unexpected loss.
And despite the high interest in the story, Ms Huckabee Sanders has said repeatedly that there remains no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Despite this, the story continues to suck oxygen from Mr Trump’s agenda, such as his signature policy to repeal and replace Obamacare, which remains stuck in Congress. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell went so far as to delay the scheduled August recess so that Republicans could continue to try to win votes for the languishing Bill.
The healthcare impasse and the Russian scandal are two big messes that Mr Trump will leave behind him when he flies out to France on Wednesday evening to meet with the country’s new president Emmanuel Macron.
Much to his chagrin, these messes will still be there to greet the President when he returns.