As outside allies urge the White House to do more to push back against special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, President Trump’s team has settled on two lines of defense: point the finger at Hillary Clinton and keep the former campaign adviser who has already pleaded guilty to lying to investigators at arm’s length.
The political effectiveness of both tactics will be tested in the coming weeks, but neither tests the bipartisan congressional blowback the president would risk if he took concrete steps to pull the plug on Mueller’s probe as some in his orbit advise.
The current White House strategy remains viable because the most senior former Trump campaign officials indicted by Mueller are being charged with offenses that do little to advance the narrative of collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential race. George Papadopoulos’ offenses are related to Russia and the campaign, but he is the most junior official caught in Mueller’s dragnet.
Factor in the still-fresh revelation that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid for opposition research from the firm behind the salacious Trump dossier and there is plenty of room to sow seeds of collusion confusion.
Asked Tuesday about what else Mueller might have up his sleeve as he continues his investigation, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders didn’t hesitate.
“Maybe his reference is in looking more to come between the Democrats and the Clinton campaign, since I think if there's any evidence that we've seen to date, it's between them colluding with other foreign governments, certainly not from our side,” she said.
Sanders also downplayed how important Papadopoulos ever was. “Again, this was a campaign volunteer,” she said. “He wasn't somebody that was a senior adviser, as many of you want to bill him to be. He was somebody that played a minimal roll, if one at all, and was part of a voluntary advisory board. That's it.”
So will Trump heed former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s advice and entertain more radical measures, like defunding the special counsel? “No,” Sanders replied. “And I'm not sure what we'd push back against since, so far, all they've done is come up with ways and shown more and more that there was no connection between the Trump campaign and collusion with Russia.”
The president himself has claimed the public record incriminates the Democrats, not his 2016 campaign. "Report out that Obama Campaign paid $972,000 to Fusion GPS. The firm also got $12,400,000 (really?) from DNC. Nobody knows who OK'd?" Trump tweeted Monday morning.
“These are probably the best arguments they can be making with the facts that are available,” said a Republican strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “At least until the other shoe drops.”
That other shoe could come in the form of Papadopoulos. Clearly no heavy hitter, he is nevertheless cooperating with Mueller and could implicate more senior officials if they sanctioned his efforts to secure Russian dirt on Clinton.
Sam Clovis, Trump’s nominee for an Agriculture Department position, is now understood to be one of the superiors mentioned in the Papadopoulos plea deal. The document references, but does not identify, as many as three or four others. Are any currently serving in the administration?
“I'm not aware of the specific individuals,” Sanders said when asked at Tuesday’s daily briefing. “What I can say is that I think Papadopoulos is an example of actually somebody doing the wrong thing while the president's campaign did the right thing.”
Aside from criticizing the Democrats’ own dirt-digging efforts and disavowing Papadopoulos, Trump can take a page from former President Bill Clinton’s playbook by arguing the Russia investigation is distracting him from doing the people’s business. White House chief of staff John Kelly made a version of that argument in an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.
Yet even some Republicans concede that will be harder to do with Trump’s poll numbers than Clinton’s. Two polls have put the president’s job approval ratings at record lows in recent days, while a Democratic polling firm found plurality support for impeachment.
Impeachment was never popular with voters under President Clinton in the 1990s and the two-term Democrat was able to use the Republicans’ handling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal to recover his own popularity.
“You can’t do what Clinton did at 60 percent approval with less than 40 percent approval,” said a second Republican strategist. “You won’t win many elections at 35 percent.”
Still, the White House is fighting back as best as it can and hoping political conditions will change.
“[W]e know that the facts are on our side, there was no collusion,” Sanders told reporters when asked why she is confident the Mueller probe will wind down soon. “And we're looking forward to moving forward, and hoping that you guys can as well.”