Frustrations are rising at the White House and in President Trump’s broader orbit after a week that was consumed by controversy.
Trump allies voice frustration behind the scenes about the handling of the crisis centered on Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer. The president’s son agreed to the June 2016 rendezvous in the hope that the lawyer would deliver incriminating information about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Most members of Team Trump acknowledged that the story was intrinsically bad for the administration — and several expressed sympathy for a White House communications staff that had to improvise a response at short notice.
But others complain that the inability to get in front of the story was a failure that exacerbated the political damage. There is no consensus over who is to blame for that, however, with fingers being pointed in every direction.
On Friday morning, NBC News reported that a former Soviet counterintelligence officer turned lobbyist had also attended the meeting with Trump Jr.
The presence of the man, Rinat Akhmetshin, had not been publicly known for several days after details of the encounter between Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya emerged. President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort also attended the meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Akhmetshin told the Associated Press that the meeting was less significant than reports suggest.
“I never thought this would be such a big deal, to be honest,” he told the news agency, which first named him.
But to some Trump allies, the news about Akhmetshin’s presence in the meeting was yet another example of a story that was given new life because of incomplete disclosure.
“Obviously there are public relations strategies that could have prevented this from becoming a 10-day story as opposed to a one-day story,” said Barry Bennett, who worked as a senior advisor to the 2016 Trump campaign.
But Bennett also argued that there was no underlying legal wrongdoing in the Trump Jr. meeting, even though it has proven so politically troublesome.
“This is a meeting that they probably shouldn’t have had, but it wasn’t illegal, unethical or immoral,” he said.
Whether that ultimately proves to be the case or not, the disclosure of the meeting — and in particular an email chain between Trump Jr. and a music publicist who acted as an intermediary in setting it up — has reportedly attracted the attention of investigators working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI head who is probing the Russian controversy.
In those emails, the intermediary, Rob Goldstone, tells Trump Jr. that the promised dirt on Clinton was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. replies, in part, “if it’s what you say I love it.”
One Republican strategist with close ties to the White House lamented that the exchange “opens other doors” in the ongoing investigations.
The controversy also has the capacity to sap the time, energy and focus of White House staff, this source said.
“It threatens the ability of White House staffers to function normally because many of them are wondering if they need to be getting lawyers,” the source said.
Many of the biggest players at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have hired personal lawyers, including the president himself, Vice President Pence, Trump Jr., and Kushner.
But even those efforts have brought their own complications. One of Trump’s lawyers, Marc Kasowitz, said late this week that he would apologize to someone who had emailed him, and to whom Kasowitz had responded in aggressive and profane terms.
Bloomberg reported on Friday that, separate from the Kasowitz controversy, Trump was planning to tap Ty Cobb, a veteran Washington lawyer, to lead the White House’s “legal and media” response to the Russia investigation.
Separately, a lawyer who had been representing Kushner on Russia-related matters, Jamie Gorelick, confirmed that she would no longer be doing so — though she will continue to work for him on ethics compliance and other topics.
Beyond the front-line figures, there is also consternation among some in Trump’s world about the likely effect of the ongoing investigations on the morale of younger or more junior staff members, who are less likely to have the money to hire big-league lawyers.
Still, even as Trump loyalists acknowledge the challenges that face them, they are united by their enduring belief that they get a raw deal from the media. Right now, that unfairness manifests itself both in sensationalist coverage in general and in an exaggeration of the level of legal jeopardy that faces junior staff, they say.
“If you didn’t do anything, you are not going to need a lawyer,” another source in Trump’s circle said. “You give an interview and that’s it, finished.”
A common refrain from Team Trump is frustration of another kind — the belief that the Russia story has overshadowed a legislative agenda that may be beginning to move.
The Senate’s attempt to pass a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, is showing some signs of life, even though the end-result remains in doubt.
Right now, Russia is taking up most of the oxygen in any given news cycle.
But Trump loyalists contend that action on healthcare and other issues would mean more to the president’s supporters than anything to do with the Russia controversy.
“Pass an agenda! Get deliverables to the American people!” said the second Trump source when asked how the White House hoped to move past the furor.
“Americans care [about] what you are going to do for them,” the person said. “They are not caught up in this Russia, conspiratorial issue.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.