Trump’s new ‘war room’
The White House went on the offensive over the Russia investigation this week, as a frustrated President Donald Trump began a staff shake-up and top aides set up a “war room” to handle the political, legal, and media consequences of the mushrooming scandal. The administration’s alarm grew when press reports last week identified Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner as “a focus” of the federal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, because of Kushner’s attempt to create a secret back channel with Moscow in December. The war room, which is modeled on the team President Bill Clinton created during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, is reportedly being set up by chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, and Kushner. White House communications director Michael Dubke resigned under pressure this week; Trump is reportedly considering other staff changes, and bringing in former campaign chief Corey Lewandowski and other loyalists to form a “crisis team” to defend him on cable TV news.
The investigators’ focus on Kushner centers on a December meeting he had in Trump Tower with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, and Michael Flynn, who was later fired as Trump’s national security adviser. At the time, the Obama administration was still in office. Kushner reportedly suggested to Kislyak that Trump aides could talk directly with the Kremlin using Russia’s secure communications equipment at its U.S. embassy or consulate. Kislyak, whose description of the meeting for his superiors was intercepted by U.S. officials, was taken aback by the suggestion, and the back channel was never set up. Two weeks later, Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, chairman of the Russian government–owned bank Vnesheconombank—a meeting he failed later to report. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said back channels were “both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable.”
In other developments, Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, became a focus of the congressional investigations into the campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. And intelligence sources told CNN that Russian officials had been heard discussing “derogatory” information about Trump, possibly financial in nature, that could give them leverage over the administration.
What the editorials said
The Kushner revelation is deeply troubling, said The Baltimore Sun. Kushner’s allies claim the transition team was merely “seeking Russian help with Syria.” But the only plausible reason he would want to use the Russians’ equipment would be to “avoid U.S. intelligence monitoring.” So what was he hiding? With new secret contacts and connections being revealed every week, “collusion between the Trump campaign and allies of Vladimir Putin no longer seems out of the realm of possibility.”
Trump definitely needs to reorganize his chaotic administration, said The Wall Street Journal. Priebus has too little power to be effective; Bannon’s allies “leak relentlessly”; and press secretary Sean Spicer has an impossible job, because Trump constantly contradicts him. The resulting “chaos” is making legislative progress impossible. With the window closing to enact health-care and tax reform before the 2018 midterms, Trump is “wasting the precious asset of time.”
What the columnists said
Diplomatic back channels “have been used by every modern president,” said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. It’s also “fairly routine for incoming administrations to have get-acquainted talks with foreign governments.” But it’s not routine or acceptable to “undermine the policies” of the incumbent president, such as the sanctions President Obama imposed on Russia for meddling in the election. It’s also not normal for U.S. citizens to want to use “the communications tools of a foreign intelligence service.” Kushner could be in big trouble.
The congressional committees’ focus on Cohen “is a very bad sign for Trump,” said Josh Marshall in TalkingPointsMemo.com. Cohen is far more than just a lawyer. A businessman and major real estate player here and abroad, he has close ties to several “émigrés from the former Soviet Union”—some of whom, such as the former mob-backed businessman Felix Sater, have been involved in Trump projects. If the president has any financial connections to Russia, Cohen knows about them.
It’s possible there’s a fairly innocent explanation for all this, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. The evidence available thus far is “still perfectly compatible” with a president and his aides trying—however clumsily—to fulfill a campaign promise to reset relations with Putin. Trump has been suggesting making an alliance with Moscow since the 1980s, and during the campaign, “he did not act like a man with a dark secret” when he openly and repeatedly pledged to negotiate with Putin on Syria, ISIS, and other issues. The president has allowed himself to be “trolled,” said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. Obsessed with “slights over his status,” he’s interpreted his critics’ focus on Russia as an insulting attack on the legitimacy of his election victory. His “ham-handed attempts” to squelch the story, most notably by firing FBI Director James Comey, have only poured fuel on the flames.
A staff shake-up won’t save Trump from himself, said Jennifer Rubin in WashingtonPost.com. The most talented Republican operatives want nothing to do with this dumpster fire of an administration, which faces a grave threat from the Mueller investigation. More importantly, Trump has an inherent inability to listen “to those who know more than he does.” That’s not going to change—which means “debacles will continue to unfold.”