By David Nakamura and Ashley Parker,
The White House offered conflicting views Sunday of whether President Trump supports the Russia sanctions legislation in Congress, with his top spokesmen contradicting one another just days after launching plans for a more effective messaging strategy.
If Trump was hoping his communications shake-up would bring a fresh approach for a White House that has struggled to respond to a constant state of turmoil, the debut of the team on the Sunday political talk shows was a rough one. Adding to the confusion, one of Trump’s lawyers appeared to contradict his new top spokesman on whether Trump has been discussing his power to issue presidential pardons.
Trump’s top communication aides set out to try to present a united front two days after the president added New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director and promoted Sarah Huckabee Sanders to press secretary after Sean Spicer resigned unexpectedly. Trump has fumed for months over the FBI probe into his campaign’s contacts with Russia, angered that the nonstop media coverage has overshadowed his achievements and stalled his agenda.
But the key spokesmen appeared to be operating from different playbooks. Featured on competing Sunday shows, Sanders and Scaramucci contradicted one other on the Russia sanctions bill that congressional leaders announced over the weekend.
“The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place,” Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We were able to work with the House and Senate, and the administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary, and we support where the legislation is now.”
Asked about the sanctions almost simultaneously on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Scaramucci noted he’d only been on the job for a few days.
“You’ve got to ask President Trump that. My guess is that he’s going to make that decision shortly,” he said, adding that as far as he knew Trump “hasn’t made the decision yet to sign that bill one way or the other.”
The result was a team that still looked uncertain about how to characterize the president’s position on a significant matter that has been central to his first six months in office. The White House had opposed Congress’s initial attempt to impose additional economic sanctions on Moscow for its meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, raising questions over Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin amid the mounting FBI probe.
Later Sunday, a senior administration official, asked by The Washington Post to clarify the White House’s position, said that the bill’s latest version included additional economic sanctions on North Korea and addressed economic concerns raised by the U.S. business sector.
“The administration supports sanctions on Russia and Iran and supports the direction the bill is headed, but won’t weigh in conclusively until there is a final piece of legislation and no more changes are being made,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain the president’s thinking.
Trump brought Scaramucci, who had been a fierce defender of the president on cable news shows, into the West Wing to help shore up a press shop that he believed was doing a poor job of defending him and explaining his message to the public. Among the president’s strategies to recover his momentum is a trip to Youngstown, Ohio, for a campaign-rally style speech on Tuesday ahead of an expected Senate vote on efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
However, historians said presidents often make the mistake of conflating a messaging problem with their real challenge — a political crisis. Trump, consumed with rage over the FBI probe, has lashed out time and again on social media and in interviews, causing himself new legal and political problems.
By late Sunday afternoon, Trump made clear that he does not intend to mute his attacks on his rivals.
“As the phony Russian Witch Hunt continues, two groups are laughing at this excuse for a lost election taking hold, Democrats and Russians!” he wrote on Twitter shortly after arriving back at the White House after spending the morning at Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County.
Scaramucci has no communications experience, and his past political associations did not make him an obvious ally for Trump. He was a fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, and he supported Republicans Scott Walker and then Jeb Bush in the 2016 campaign, before jumping to Trump after his earlier favorites dropped out of the GOP primary race.
After taking the White House job, Scaramucci announced he would delete hundreds of tweets that showed he had criticized Trump and held liberal views on gun control, immigration and other issues.
Though he won some good reviews from reporters after fielding questions in the White House briefing room Friday, he took some heat on social media Sunday when he made an awkward joke on CNN asking Sanders for them to keep using the same “hair and makeup person” — which some viewers took as a comment on her appearance.
Scaramucci later clarified his statement, saying he was referring to his look and not Sanders’s.
Sanders said in an email to The Washington Post that Scaramucci was complimenting the makeup artist for doing a good job.
“Nothing else should be read into it,” she said.
Yet Trump reportedly admired Scaramucci’s forceful appearances on cable news shows defending the administration and was particularly impressed that he had forced CNN to retract a story that erroneously connected him to a Russian investment fund.
Spicer was said to have lobbied against Trump’s hiring of Scaramucci and resigned in protest after the hiring Friday.
The role of the White House communications director has traditionally been to develop longer term strategies for winning public support for the president’s policies and agenda, while the press secretary responds to news events in real time.
On that score, Scaramucci has not had much time to add his influence. And it was not just on the Russia sanctions bill that the White House’s messaging was muddled Sunday.
Last week, the Post reported that Trump and his legal team were exploring his powers to pardon aides, family members and, potentially, even himself as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III continues to oversee the Russia probe. On Saturday, Trump wrote on Twitter that he has “complete power to pardon,” an assertion that some interpreted to mean his advisers had said he could, in fact, pardon himself.
On “This Week,” one of Trump’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow, described that tweet as “rather unremarkable.”
“The president has the authority to pardon,” Sekulow said, though he emphasized that Trump’s legal team has not even discussed that question with the president.
“We have not, and I continue to not, have conversations with the president of the United States regarding pardons,” Sekulow said.
Sekulow’s comments, however, seem at odds with other members of Trump’s team. On “Fox News Sunday,” Scaramucci said he and the president had, in fact, discussed last week how far his pardoning authority extends.
“I’m in the Oval Office with the president last week, we’re talking about that — he brought that up,” Scaramucci said. But he added that Trump made clear that he “doesn’t have to be pardoned. There’s nobody around him that has to be pardoned. He was just making the statement about the power of pardons.”
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