White House officials attempted to move beyond the legal troubles of three former Trump campaign aides, pushing a message that President Donald Trump was busily preparing for his Asia trip and meeting with lawmakers on his agenda. Then, again, came self-inflicted errors.
Trump’s staff set up his day to steer the narrative toward that coming 11-day trek through a handful of Asian countries — with the North Korea threat and trade issues on the agenda — and the Republican push for a tax overhaul bill.
The president was slated to remain out of sight of reporters all of Tuesday, one day after the indictment of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and another former campaign aide, Rick Gates, who later helped run the 2017 inauguration then worked for a lobbying firm that advocated for Trump’s agenda. Also on Monday, a guilty plea was unsealed from a lower-level campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, whom special counsel Robert Mueller determined lied to investigators about his talks with Russians promising Kremlin-supplied “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s busy-but-out-of-view Tuesday hunkered in meetings with senior aides and lawmakers, including Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisc., was intended to portray him as hard at work and not distracted by his former aides’ legal troubles. But, as often happens, the White House’s inability to stay on message at least partially obscured its intended message.
The Trump team’s inability to stay on message began before the president’s Tuesday schedule was even released Monday night. Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general brought in to lessen — not add to, as he has twice done — the often-chaotic White House told Fox News Channel that the U.S. Civil War occurred not because of deep differences over slavery, but because two sides failed to compromise.
On a day when the White House expected to continue trying to distance Trump from Manafort and Gates, while also trying to discredit Papadopoulos, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was forced to face question after question about what Kelly meant to say.
“I don’t know that I’m going to get into debating the Civil War, but I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote, in Ken Burns’ famous Civil War documentary, agreed that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War,” she said. “There are a lot of historians that think that, and there are lots of different versions of those compromises.”
Later, Sanders urged reporters to avoid trying to “debate every moment of history.”
“There are moments that we’re going to be a lot less proud of than others, but we can’t erase the fact that they happened,” she said. “The president has said that those are something that should be left up to state and local governments, and that’s not who I’m here representing today, so I’m not going to get into the back-and-forth on it.”
Reflecting the Trump White House’s staunch defense of the president’s stances, and those uttered by some of his top aides, Sanders’ comments stuck close to Trump’s past statements about taking down statues of the Founding Fathers and prominent figures from the Revolutionary and Civil wars. It was clear she was eager to avoid saying anything to offend her boss or his political base.
Then she tried to leave the briefing room. The day’s tax and Asia trip message slipped away when a reporter asked, “Sarah, was slavery wrong?”
Sanders closed her binder, she wished the reporters a “happy and safe Halloween,” and then turned to leave. The reporter asked again. Then again. Then a fourth time. She grew louder each time.
Trump’s top spokeswoman said nothing, leaving the White House briefing room without disavowing slavery.
Earlier, she had criticized the media for collectively pushing a narrative “that this is some sort of a racially charged and divided White House.”
Despite Kelly’s statement and Sanders’s lack of one, things started out on message and quiet at the executive mansion on a cool day in Washington. Outside, grounds crews cut grass and removed leaves from the North Lawn. Inside, aides and reporters scurried about.
The White House — and possibly even the president himself — decided to bring in reporters for a midday event on the tax overhaul push with corporate executives. After using his morning tweets to call Papadopoulos a “liar,” the president was more upbeat as he spoke about lowering tax rates and answered a few questions.
Trump again predicted the emerging GOP package will get a handful of Democratic votes in the Senate. Why? “Because I think it’s going to be very hard for five or six of them to run successfully saying they want to raise taxes,” he said.
The president even appeared to, in a break from his character, signal to Republican lawmakers looking for ways to make the math work on the tax bill that he might negotiate on a proposal to phase in a lowering of the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. (He previously had said 20 percent was the figure he wanted in the final bill.)
“We’re not looking for that, no. We’re not looking for that,” he said, before not ruling it out: “Hopefully not. … Some people have mentioned that. Hopefully not.”
The first 20 or so minutes of Sanders’ press briefing were routine, though the Civil War questions were a tad unusual, there were about the tax bill and what Trump wants.
“He certainly supports the childcare tax credit,” Sanders said near the end when asked if Trump expects that to be included in any bill that reaches his desk. And what about a proposed provision to nix the 2010 health law’s individual mandate? “I don’t believe it has to be part of tax reform, but the childcare tax credit is something he’d certainly like to see,” she said.
Sanders called on another questioner after that. It was about Papadopoulous. There was “more than one instance” in which Papadopoulos “tried to set up meetings [with Russian contacts] that were rebuffed by the campaign,” she said. She got in another White House talking point, reminding reporters that Papadopoulos, in his initial interviews with federal investigators, “lied about a lot of those activities.”
Then came the slavery question. Sanders had no talking point at the ready.