For a White House that has strained to explain itself during persistent scandals, the past 72 hours have proven particularly perilous on a subject central to the administration’s woes: Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not discuss sanctions related to the interference in their recent face-to-face meeting in Germany. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday, however, that the two had discussed sanctions in the meeting. This contradiction came after the White House refused to say whether Trump accepted Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the election — Trump did accept their version of events, the Kremlin has said.
And on Sunday, Trump reversed himself in just a matter of hours, touting a proposed cybersecurity task force with Russia before later saying such a group would not be formed.
It is not just the White House struggling to explain Russia-linked events. Donald Trump Jr. acknowledged over the weekend that he met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer to discuss potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort also attended that meeting. The existence of the meeting, and the Clinton link, were first revealed by The New York Times.
In evolving statements, Trump Jr. first said on Saturday that the meeting just focused on the issue of adoption of Russia children. As more information emerged, Trump Jr. acknowledged on Sunday that the Russian lawyer had dangled the prospect of damaging information about Clinton to secure the meeting. The plot further thickened on Monday evening with a fresh New York Times report that alleged Trump Jr. was informed by email ahead of the meeting that the source of the information about Clinton came from the Russian government, despite Trump Jr.’s statement that he had very little information about the nature of the meeting beforehand.
Alan Futerfas, an attorney from Trump Jr., said Monday night the report was “much ado about nothing” and that “the bottom line” is that he “did nothing wrong.”
White House veterans warn that such shifting statements could dangerously erode the White House’s already diminished credibility.
“What’s undeniable is that they’re burning their capital and doing so in two key places, both at home and perhaps more importantly on the international stage,” said Ned Price, who was a spokesman for the National Security Council in the Obama White House and worked for the CIA during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Differing accounts of meetings with a foreign adversary is nothing new, he noted — what is new is the American side’s lack of credibility.