When the report burst forth alleging that President Donald Trump had revealed highly classified information to Russian diplomats, the White House quickly dispatched Trump’s national security adviser to declare that the story “as reported is false.”
By the next morning, however, H.R. McMaster’s pronouncement was undercut by Trump himself, making the aide the latest to face a public conflict with the boss in a White House where credibility problems are becoming an occupational hazard.
Yes, the president said, he had given information to the Russians. But there was nothing wrong with that, he insisted. In two tweets, Trump said the conversation with the diplomats was an acceptable way to provide facts related to airline safety and terrorism, and he declared he had “the absolute right” to share the details.
Still, the day-after accounts prompted questions about McMaster’s earlier comments on the story that was first reported by The Washington Post.
These types of conflicts are a near-constant in the Trump administration, which has tangled over accounts involving issues ranging from the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd to the firing of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s claims that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.
On Tuesday, the White House denied reports that Trump had asked FBI Director James Comey to shut down an FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Democrats and some Republicans greeted those denials skeptically.
Trump has frequently tasked aides and surrogates with delivering apparently false or misleading statements or to aggressively argue points that the president later contradicts.
The conflicted information has made it harder for aides to effectively advocate for the president.
“It’s always a hard job, but there’s no question in my mind the president has made it harder for his immediate staff, which is there to support him,” said Ari Fleischer, press secretary to Republican President George W. Bush.
Trump himself has raised doubts about the credibility of what his representatives say. He tweeted last week that since he’s a very active president, it’s not always possible for his surrogates to speak with perfect accuracy. He also suggested “maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer got off to a rocky start with beat reporters on the second day of the administration when he delivered a tirade about reporting on the Inauguration Day crowds. Trump had already blasted the media over its reports — accurate — about the numbers.
Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to the president, has also tangled with the media over the believability of her statements, saying earlier this year in a television appearance that Flynn had Trump’s full confidence, hours before Trump fired him. She also referred to a “Bowling Green Massacre” that never occurred.
And Vice-President Mike Pence insisted Flynn had not discussed Obama-era Russian sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. That was untrue, something the White House blamed on Flynn when Trump fired him a month later.
Asked Tuesday if he is concerned about White House credibility being undermined, Spicer said “no one would ever want that.”
But the loose accounting of facts has raised alarms among both Republicans and Democrats. They note that the administration has yet to face a national or international crisis comparable to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Hurricane Katrina or the Sandy Hook school shootings.
“Lacking credibility makes dealing with crises infinitely more difficult,” said Alex Conant, a Republican communications strategist who advised the presidential bid of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Trump rival. “This White House has wasted credibility by arguing things like crowd size.”
“This is not business as usual. And the president is truly creating chaos,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a speech Tuesday to the Center for American Progress’ Ideas Conference.
The reliability of White House statements was again questioned after the firing of FBI Director James Comey last week and then in this week’s intelligence flap.
When Comey was ousted by Trump, White House officials said the decision came only after the president consulted with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who laid out a case for Comey’s dismissal in a memo.
But in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt two days later, Trump said he had long planned to sack his controversial FBI director. “I was going to fire Comey,” Trump said.
The White House made another pivot after Trump disclosed information about an Islamic State terror threat in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Kislyak. That disclosure included highly classified information, the Post reported. A senior U.S official told AP the same thing, saying the threat involved laptop computers on aircraft
The information had been shared with Trump by an ally, so his passing it along to Russia violated the confidentiality of an intelligence-sharing agreement with that country, the official said.
Hours after the story broke, McMaster stood in front of a bank of cameras, saying that the Post story, “as reported, is false.” He added that, “at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed,” an allegation that was not made in the story, and that Trump “did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”
On Tuesday, McMaster said Trump’s actions were “wholly appropriate,” adding, “The president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source and method of the information either.”
For Trump staffers, there have been warnings they could be undercut by their boss. Trump, in a May 2016 tweet, offered this piece of advice.
“Don’t believe the biased and phoney media quoting people who work for my campaign. The only quote that matters is a quote from me!”
Associated Press Television Writer David Bauder contributed to this report.