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 cyber security 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 campaign. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and former 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 Hillary Clinton to secure the meeting.
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.
“It used to be the case that Americans would assume the Russians were just lying,” he said, but after Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about everything from mass voter fraud to illegal wiretapping, that credibility is in doubt. “You are left wondering which side is more credible, and it’s not only with regard to Russia.”
On the international stage, allies are left scratching their heads. At home, the political ramifications are clear: when Russia is in the headlines, actual governing becomes a good deal more difficult.
“There’s a general frustration with the lack of message discipline — that’s putting it lightly,” said one senior GOP Capitol Hill aide. “That’s just another distraction that keeps us from being able to break through” on legislative priorities such as health care and tax reform.
The recent spree of differing accounts is hardly the first time the White House has struggled to push a cohesive message. Top aides and even Vice President Mike Pence previously declared that Trump fired FBI director James Comey because of a recommendation from the Justice Department, only for Trump to contradict that rationale days later. And press secretary Sean Spicer once famously said that the administration’s travel ban was not a "ban" — even though Trump has called it just that both before and since Spicer’s comment.
One White House official said the conflicting narratives and stories were often because people simply don’t know the truth and were just trying to stick with what Trump had said over Twitter, a potentially dangerous proposition given Trump’s penchant for contradicting statements.
For example, few White House officials were aware if Trump talked about sanctions with Putin, this person said, given the very limited number of people in the room. Trump himself said on Twitter he had not, but the White House has since corrected him.
Then there’s Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, which still has an air of mystery around it.
"If others in the White House knew what Trump Jr. spoke about in the meeting with the lawyer, I haven’t heard it,” the White House official said.
This person said Spicer and other senior officials are increasingly leery of making public statements because Trump will change his story "and then you’re the one who has to eat it," this person said.
"It’s become a joke in the White House of ‘the tweet speaks for itself, or ‘the president has said,’" this person said.
The conflicting stories leave Hill aides and others close to the administration searching for a strategy, one senior GOP aide said. For example, this person said, the first New York Times story about the meeting "seemed like not that big of a deal."
"Then their story changed, and it got worse," this person said. "And then you think, maybe it’s still not that big of a deal, and maybe it’s overblown, but why can’t they get their story straight. You say, ‘What are they trying to hide?’”
As frustrating as the ordeal is for Republicans on the Hill, it’s left observers of the White House plainly baffled.
"Trump’s team seems to be the gang that can’t shoot straight. They are constantly stepping over each other’s stories. It comes from a lack of leadership at the top,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. "The president himself might disagree with you an hour later. Truth isn’t a currency in the Trump White House. … A lot of these advisers are starting to become seen as unreliable and untrustworthy."
Brinkley pointed to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s infamous quip about “alternative facts,” something critics often point to when the administration delivers untruths.
Conway was part of the brigade working to put out the latest controversy, despite her own struggles with credibility.
During a television appearance on Monday morning, Conway implored CNN host Chris Cuomo to be fair and refer to Trump Jr.’s statement.
Cuomo asked Conway to be specific as Trump Jr. had given different statements.