When President Donald Trump floats wild and evidence-free conspiracy theories — of massive voter fraud and illegal wire taps ordered by his predecessor — he typically does so from the relative safety of his phone’s keypad, sometimes while weekending at his seaside Mar-a-Lago resort.
It is his beleaguered White House advisers who are then forced into the bright media spotlight to defend him, however tenuously connected Trump’s beliefs are to the truth, leaving them often twisted into rhetorical pretzels or twisting in the wind.
“I’ll just let the tweet speak for itself,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered on Monday to defend Trump’s latest wire-tap allegations.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was similarly searching for solid ground on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “If this happened, if this is accurate,” she said, “this is the biggest overreach and the biggest scandal,”
“If, if, if, if,” pushed host Martha Raddatz. “Why is the president saying it did happen?”
Alex Conant, a veteran Republican communications professional, empathized with their predicament. “Your ability to do your job well is only as good as the information and the policies that you’re advocating,” he said.
“I know those guys well but I certainly don’t envy their jobs right now,” Conant said. “Communicators are the first to get blamed even when the problems are much deeper.”
Trump has offered no evidence for his explosive wire-tapping claim. Obama’s aides have said it is “false.” Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it was untrue. Trump nonetheless has called for a full congressional investigation.
The White House declared on Sunday that there would be no further comment on the matter “until such oversight is conducted,” Spicer said.
But by early Monday, aides to the cable-conscious president were back on the morning shows. Sanders went on NBC and ABC. Counselor Kellyanne Conway was on Fox.
“He’s the president of the United States. He has information and intelligence that the rest of us do not, and that’s the way it should be for presidents,” Conway said, offering up her own version of Trump’s “believe me” defense.
Sanders was pressed for whether Trump was simply reading unsubstantiated reports in conservative outlets about wire-tapping or had any actual evidence. “Look, I haven’t had the chance to have the conversation directly with the president,” Sanders said on her second day as the administration’s main point person on the matter.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
“It’s not lost on anyone that there are obviously challenges,” one White House official said understatedly of defending Trump’s every public thought and Twitter post.
Spicer himself spent Monday trying to bat away questions about Trump’s wire-tapping charges — “This is McCarthyism!” Trump had tweeted over the weekend, comparing it to “Nixon/Watergate” — albeit in the lower-profile setting of an off-camera briefing.
“Another quiet weekend,” he began to knowing laughs at a gaggle. Spicer hasn’t held a full, on-camera press briefing in a week, a drought rare in the busy early days of an administration.
Spicer is on the frontlines of defending Trump’s tweets and unfounded beliefs. He stood behind the president’s claim that millions voted illegally in 2016. “I think the president has believed that for a while based on studies and information that he has,” Spicer said. The White House has produced no such evidence but similarly called for an investigation.
“They’re bumping up very close against a line that presents some real moral predicaments for them,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, who was critical of Trump during the 2016 campaign. “If you are perpetuating something you don’t believe may be true, that’s a very gray and fuzzy area.”
“This goes to our standing in the world,” Stutzman went on. “You just have to hope that they’re also doing some real soul searching on a personal level.”
Spicer isn’t the only to have avoided the on-camera spotlight lately. The State Department still has not held its traditional on-camera press briefing yet during the Trump administration, and it canceled its tentatively scheduled first one on Monday.
Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson joined Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to deliver a statement rolling out the new executive order temporarily banning immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries. But they quickly departed, without taking a single question from the assembled media.
Trump himself signed the order without any press present to ask questions. The White House instead distributed only a government-produced photograph of the signing.
The challenge for White House aides sent out to toe the administration’s line is that Trump himself is an unsparing critic of their performances, watching them on cable and offering regular feedback.
And he also holds it against them when they offer anything but a full-throated defense. After the election, Trump would razz his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, for having privately urged him to withdraw from the race during its low point, when a tape emerged of Trump bragging about groping women and getting away with it.
One added challenge for White House aides is that Trump’s statements are eligible for potential future backtracking.
“SEE YOU IN COURT,” Trump tweeted about the immigration order last month. But on Monday, the new order he signed will revoke the original one once it goes into effect.
“If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the ‘bad’ would rush in our country during that week. A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” Trump tweeted on Jan. 30 defending the rush for the first order. On Monday, his administration announced their new order wouldn’t go into effect for 10 days.
Matt Schlapp, a former political director in the George W. Bush White House said the closest analogy to Trump’s Twitter account is an “unartful answer at a press conference” from past presidents.
“It’s kinda like having the president call a press conference whenever he wants,” Schlapp said of Trump’s tweets. “And the staff hates press conferences.”
Powered by WPeMatico