WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has allowed his young presidency to become mired in a seemingly intractable Russia scandal by singling out journalists for attack instead of squarely facing allegations that his advisers colluded with Russia in its meddling in the U.S. presidential election. “You have to be honest and get the information out quickly so you can define it and start the process of hopefully moving on,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican communications strategist. “The truth will always come out.”
For months, Trump and his aides have been silent or vague as information has leaked out in dribs and drabs about their contacts with Russians. Instead of releasing information during the campaign or even the transition, Trump continues to blame the news outlets that are reporting the accusations. “Russia is fake news,” he said at a news conference last month. “This is fake news put out by the media.”
On Thursday, the Russia scandal reached a new urgency as it became known that Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have misled his fellow senators in sworn testimony about his interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while Sessions was Trump’s chief foreign policy adviser. After hours of debate roiled Washington, Sessions recused himself from overseeing any investigation into Russia campaign meddling after several fellow Republicans pushed him to do so. Last month, Trump fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about speaking to Kislyak about sanctions before the inauguration.
“They keep getting stung by this,” South Carolina Republican consultant David Woodard said.
Critics argue that Trump and his associates must be hiding something, while supporters stress that no evidence of wrongdoing has been found. “We have seen no evidence from any of these ongoing investigations that anybody in the Trump campaign or the Trump team was involved in any of this,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, faced the same troubles after she failed to disclose information about the private email account she used for government business when she was secretary of state. In the end, that obstinacy may have cost Clinton the election.
Sessions, a former senator, met with Kislyak twice during the presidential campaign despite indicating in his confirmation hearings that he had not spoken to Russian officials, The Washington Post reported late Wednesday. A spokesperson for Sessions confirmed the meetings but said in a statement that they were not related to the election campaign. “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” the statement said. “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.” When Trump was asked by reporters Thursday while traveling in Virginia whether he still had confidence in Sessions, Trump said, “Total.”
On Thursday, another possible Russian connection surfaced when The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., had spoken at a private dinner in Paris organized by a group aligned with the Russian government. Trump Jr. made at least $50,000 for the speech to the Center of Political and Foreign affairs, a French think tank, according to the report.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who runs a Sacramento, Calif.-based firm specializing in communications and crisis management, said there could be several reasons the White House had not been more forthcoming: Trump associates did do something wrong or aides do not know the truth. “It goes on and on and continues to be a distraction,” Stutzman said. It also could be that Trump doesn’t trust reporters with the information. He has had a tempestuous relationship with the news media, and his strategy for dealing with the latest revelations isn’t particularly surprising.
During the campaign, Trump ranted at what he called a “totally dishonest press,” which he blamed for negative coverage and accused of failing to show the true size of his crowds. He banned various newspapers from his rallies. Since he was sworn into office, Trump has selected reporters from friendly media outlets to ask him questions at his news conferences with foreign heads of state, and his press secretary banned some outlets from an informal briefing.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor at the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami, said Sessions likely received the same advice from his advisers that any lawyer would give a client: Listen carefully to questions and answer only what is specifically asked and nothing more. “He is doing what every lawyer tells his client to do,” Weinstein said. “Which is listen to the question, answer the specific question and move on. Don’t give them anything more. Don’t give them anything less.” But he said there was a difference between legal and political responses.
Politically, he said, it would have been easier to conduct damage control if Sessions and Flynn had been forthcoming earlier. The full content of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak has never been made public. Sessions could have blamed his attorney, saying he had answered as instructed or even saying he would have answered more candidly if the question had been asked differently, Weinstein said.
“Then you can conduct damage control as opposed to the leaks that come out,” he said. Whether that’s even possible now is another question, however. Trump has been avoiding Russia questions for months, and it has cost him his national security adviser and the full use of his attorney general. “It’s always better to be in front of something politically than have to react to it,” Weinstein said.