WASHINGTON — White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders brought a mixture of defensiveness and obfuscation to her briefing with reporters on Wednesday as she faced continued questions about Donald Trump Jr.’s recently revealed meeting with a Russian lawyer. It’s a strategy that has left the press — as well as some in the White House itself — deeply dissatisfied.
Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was first reported in the New York Times on July 8. Since then, there have been a slew of revelations about the meeting — including that Trump Jr. had been told the lawyer would provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to support Trump’s candidacy. The meeting has been the focus of intense scrutiny amid multiple investigations into Russia’s interference in the election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, Trump Jr. insisted he did nothing wrong and said he did not leave the meeting with any incriminating information about Clinton.
A White House official, speaking anonymously to Yahoo News, expressed frustration at the efforts to dismiss the questions about Russia. The official suggested the correct response would be for the White House to state its willingness to cooperate with any investigation and let the process play out through proper channels rather than in the headlines. Instead, the official said, the White House has been unable to move past the scandal.
The first question posed to Sanders at the briefing was whether Trump and his son have had “any communications” over the “last couple of days.” She was also asked whether a report that the president helped his son craft his initial statement to the press was correct. Sanders had no answer.
“I’m not sure about specific communications and the nature of those conversations. I know that they’ve spoken at least at some point over the last few days, but beyond that I don’t have any other further details,” she said.
Sanders was asked about statements made by Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee for FBI director, in his confirmation hearing earlier Wednesday. Questioned about the president’s view that the special counsel’s probe into Russia’s election interference is a “witch hunt,” Wray broke with Trump and said he doesn’t share that view. Asked to clarify, Sanders said the president “has made extremely clear his position on that, and it certainly has not changed.” Sanders was pressed about why the president might have the view the investigation is a “witch hunt” when that position is not shared by his proposed FBI director, by congressional investigators or law enforcement.
“Because the president knows very specifically any action or inaction that has been taken. And so I think that’s pretty clear,” Sanders said.
That answer led to even more questions, since the White House has claimed that Trump was unaware of his son’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, which was also attended by the president’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Later in the briefing, Sanders was asked how Trump could profess to be sure there was no inappropriate activity on the part of his campaign when he claimed to have no knowledge of key meetings that clearly did take place. Her response did not address the question at all.
“Once again, I think the president’s been very clear about his opinion on the matter,” Sanders said, revealing nothing about how the president could have drawn his conclusion.
Sanders was also asked about influential South Carolina Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy’s comment that the “drip, drip, drip” of scandal is “undermining the credibility of this administration.” She deflected to one of her favorite targets, the press, rather than responding to the fact this criticism came from a member of Trump’s own party.
“I think it’s actually undermining the credibility of the media because they ‘drip, drip, drip’ a lot of things that don’t seem to have much to — much ado about nothing,” Sanders said.
The reporter emphasized that the comment came from Gowdy and asked Sanders if she wanted to respond to him. Reminded that her answer did not address the question, Sanders stuck to her guns.
“I think I just answered that,” Sanders said.
When questioned about Trump Jr., Sanders repeatedly tried to pivot to Clinton, Trump’s election opponent.
“I think if there’s been any evidence of collusion in 2016 that’s come out at all or been discussed, that’s actually happened, it would be between the [Democratic National Committee] and the Ukrainian government,” Sanders said.
Sanders was referring to the fact a DNC staffer solicited information from the Ukrainian embassy in researching Trump and his team. That’s become a favorite talking point of Trump’s allies amid the controversy of his son’s meeting.
Sanders also turned to Clinton’s Russian links when a reporter asked her to explain an apparent “wave of amnesia” among the Trump administration where Kushner, former national security adviser Mike Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have all, at times, failed to disclose meetings with Russian officials when asked about them.
“I think, if you want to talk about having relations with Russia, I’d look no further than the Clintons,” Sanders said before reciting a list of connections including speaking fees Clinton’s husband received from a Russian bank and lobbying work done by the brother of Clinton’s campaign chairman.
One of the reporters in the crowd interjected and pointed out Sanders’ critique of the Clintons did nothing to address the issue of Trump administration officials forgetting their contacts with Russia.
“What about his question?” the reporter shouted.
There was no response from Sanders.
Yahoo News received no reply from Sanders or White House press secretary Sean Spicer to an email requesting an explanation for the continued focus on Clinton, who lost more than eight months ago. The premise of Yahoo’s question was that even if Clinton or her associates behaved improperly, doesn’t Trump want to be judged by his own actions and by a different ethical standard than the woman he infamously dubbed “Crooked Hillary?”
These are questions that are also being asked inside the West Wing. A clearly exasperated White House staffer told Yahoo News they believe the continued attacks on the Clintons are an effort to satisfy Trump, who has remained fixated on his election victory. The staffer suggested this focus on the Clintons is leading to statements that don’t address the issues at hand and therefore prevent the discussion from moving on.
The staffer’s take: “The Clinton stuff is purely done to appease Trump. It’s the equivalent of giving a sick, screaming baby whiskey instead of taking them to the doctor and actually solving the problem.”
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