White House aides try dis­ap­pear­ing act amid im­peach­ment talk

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - As­so­ci­ated Press

WASH­ING­TON — They’ve skipped the high­pro­file Sun­day TV shows and avoided drive­way chat ses­sions with re­porters. Few who are typ­i­cally ea­ger to de­fend the pres­i­dent have ap­peared at all on tele­vi­sion this month.

White House of­fi­cials close to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump are pulling off a dis­ap­pear­ing act, re­main­ing largely ab­sent from pub­lic view — in the mid­dle of the storm over im­peach­ment.

“We in­vited the White House on to an­swer ques­tions on the show this morn­ing,” CNN’S Jake Tap­per ex­plained to his view­ers on Sun­day’s “State of the Union.” ‘’They did not of­fer a guest.”

It’s a well-worn strat­egy in the Trump White House: Se­nior of­fi­cials con­ve­niently man­age to be else­where when ma­jor con­tro­ver­sies en­gulf the build­ing. The fre­quent ab­sences of Jared Kush­ner, the Repub­li­can pres­i­dent’s son-in-law and se­nior ad­viser, and pres­i­den­tial daugh­ter Ivanka Trump dur­ing mo­ments of con­se­quence have long been a run­ning joke among their de­trac­tors. Their de­tours in­cluded a trip to Florida dur­ing the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Plenty of oth­ers have jumped town dur­ing tense mo­ments.

As Trump strug­gled with mount­ing Repub­li­can de­fec­tions over his de­ci­sion to de­clare a na­tional emer­gency to pay for the stalled bor­der wall, act­ing White House chief of staff Mick Mul­vaney wasn’t at the Capi­tol ca­jol­ing his for­mer col­leagues or in the West Wing mak­ing calls. In­stead, he was in Las Ve­gas for an an­nual friends and fam­ily get­away.

More re­cently, em­bat­tled na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton sched­uled a trip to Mon­go­lia while Trump be­came the first sit­ting U.S. pres­i­dent to set foot in North Korea, a ges­ture that didn’t sit well with Bolton, who would leave the ad­min­is­tra­tion a few months later.

In­deed, know­ing “when to be out of town” was one of the top nuggets of ad­vice that Kevin Has­sett, the pres­i­dent’s for­mer top eco­nomic ad­viser, said he’d re­ceived from a pre­de­ces­sor and had to of­fer his suc­ces­sor.

The White House did not re­spond to ques­tions about the tac­tic Wed­nes­day. But even when they’re in Wash­ing­ton, many of the White House’s most vis­i­ble of­fi­cials have been stay­ing out of pub­lic view, let­ting the pres­i­dent’s in­dig­nant Twit­ter feed and his fre­quent com­men­tary drive the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion.

That in­cludes White House spokesman Ho­gan Gi­d­ley, a fre­quent guest on Fox News shows and the gag­gles with re­porters that of­ten fol­low on the White House drive­way. White House coun­selor Kellyanne Con­way, an ag­gres­sive de­fender of the pres­i­dent, has not made an ap­pear­ance on the drive­way since a highly con­tentious Sept. 27 gag­gle in which she be­rated re­porters and dis­missed a ques­tion about whether the White House was or­ga­niz­ing an im­peach­ment war room.

“I’m the only per­son out here tak­ing your ques­tions,” Con­way noted then. She did, how­ever, ap­pear at an event with first lady Me­la­nia Trump, speak­ing with teens and young adults about their ex­pe­ri­ences with elec­tronic cigarettes and vap­ing.

Ap­pear­ances have come in­stead from lower-pro­file staffers, in­clud­ing the vice pres­i­dent’s chief of staff, Marc Short; the act­ing di­rec­tor of Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get, Rus­sell Vought; and eco­nomic ad­viser Larry Kud­low, who tried to stay out of the con­tro­versy. He’s said re­peat­edly that ques­tions about Ukraine and the pres­i­dent’s ef­forts to dig up dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den are way out of his lane.

Adding to the vac­uum is the con­tin­ued lack of White House brief­ings. White House press sec­re­tary Stephanie Gr­isham has yet to hold one.

“It’s sur­pris­ing that they’re not us­ing the many levers on the most pow­er­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tions plat­form in the world, which is the White House,” said Joe Lock­hart, who served as press sec­re­tary dur­ing the im­peach­ment of Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton . He said that the White House is los­ing out on ef­fec­tive plat­forms to try to drive its mes­sage.

“No­body is vouch­ing for him or val­i­dat­ing him and fill­ing in the blanks,” Lock­hart said of Trump.

Many aides to the pres­i­dent have grown re­luc­tant to speak out on Trump’s be­half for fear the pres­i­dent will then con­tra­dict them. In­stead, they al­low the pres­i­dent to set the day’s mes­sage on his Twit­ter feed and vig­or­ously de­fend him­self.

But one of the rea­sons Clin­ton’s im­peach­ment strat­egy was ef­fec­tive, Lock­hart said, was that the pres­i­dent al­most never talked about the im­peach­ment drama. He re­lied on his lawyers, his com­mu­ni­ca­tions staff and out­side al­lies to make the case for him.

“The pres­i­dent shouldn’t be his own de­fender,” Lock­hart said. “The pres­i­dent should be fo­cused on do­ing the job of the pres­i­dent.” But un­like Clin­ton, Trump has an­other tool at his dis­posal: a mas­sive and well-funded cam­paign op­er­a­tion that has vig­or­ously de­fended the pres­i­dent on Twit­ter and cut a series of ads that paint the im­peach­ment inquiry as noth­ing more than a Demo­cratic “coup” aimed at over­turn­ing the re­sults of the 2016 elec­tion.

An­other ad re­leased Wed­nes­day fo­cuses on al­le­ga­tions against Bi­den and his son Hunter, which the pres­i­dent and his al­lies have been pur­su­ing de­spite lack­ing ev­i­dence of any wrong­do­ing.

Tim Mur­taugh, the Trump cam­paign’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, said the cam­paign team speaks with its coun­ter­parts at the White House ev­ery day and work in tan­dem.

“At all times we take our lead from the White House,” he said. “The pres­i­dent is our boss, and we are an ex­ten­sion of him. We make all of our de­ci­sions ac­cord­ingly.”

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