The White House was forced to respond Monday to allegations made by porn actress Stormy Daniels and questions about the Trump administration’s credibility, two topics officials worked to ignore.
Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah also would not say whether President Donald Trump has ruled out sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin after several aggressive actions by his government. In a short but efficient press briefing, Shah, subbing for Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, also declined to issue a vote of confidence from behind a White House podium in embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
White House aides would have preferred Monday to be all about Trump’s decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats and intelligence agents working on U.S. soil and shutter the Russian consulate in Seattle. Shah devoted part of his opening remarks to that decision, and at several points called the recent poisoning of a Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom — which Trump and the British government say was likely Kremlin-backed — “reckless.”
“This is a response to the attack in Salisbury [in England] but it is also a response to … a steady drumbeat of destabilizing actions” by Moscow, a senior administration told reporters on a morning conference call. “It is also intended as a message to the leaders of the Russian Federation.”
The closure of the consulate will trigger the expulsion of 48 Russian who work there, the official said, adding that the administration also is sending home 12 Russian intelligence officers from the country’s United Nations delegation in New York.
National security experts of all political stripes called the Russia expulsions a tough and justified move. By mid-morning, hawkish Republicans such as Senate Armed Services member Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Democratic critics of the president such as Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia had hailed Trump’s move.
But other matters hanging over the Trump White House — all self-inflicted — overshadowed the administration’s second move in six days aimed at altering Russia’s behavior. (Last Tuesday, the administration slapped sanctions on Russian entities, including two top security agencies, and a list of individuals over the election meddling and an ongoing cyber attack on the U.S. energy sector.)
Shah largely sidestepped questions about allegations made Sunday evening on CBS’ “60 Minutes” by Daniels (a.k.a. Stephanie Clifford) of having sex with Trump in 2006 and of receiving a payment from his lawyer Michael Cohen in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election to keep quiet.
He did say Trump has clearly and consistently denied all of Daniels’ allegations, even though a web search turns up no public evidence of the president doing just that.
“The president doesn’t believe … the allegations Ms. Daniels made last night,” said Shah, who would not say whether Trump watched her interview. “There’s nothing to corroborate [them].”
Shah was pressed from the start of the briefing, with the first question referring to a wild Friday at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Trump caught his staff and Republican allies off guard when he tweeted he was considering vetoing an ominbus spending bill needed to avert the third government shutdown of his presidency — after most lawmakers had already left town. He later signed the measure, but not before undercutting his top budget official and chief liaison to Congress, who had guaranteed a day earlier that he would do so.
That followed Sanders giving Shulkin a vote of confidence that has since given way to his expected ouster this week. That followed senior White House officials saying the president and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser for another week, had a strong working relationship. Trump would fire McMaster several days after.
A reporter asked Shah why the American people should believe anything any administration official other than Trump says.
The spokesman’s response was telling. He did not try to discredit the premise that Trump sometimes undermines even his most-senior aides by doing the opposite of what they’ve said publicly.
“Sometimes the dynamics are fluid,” Shah said Monday. “Facts and circumstances change. We … give you guys the best and most accurate information we have.”
But Trump abruptly changes that information or does not share his true intentions with his senior staff. Perhaps that’s why Shah would only say this when asked if Trump still has confidence in Shulkin: “I don’t have any personnel announcements at this time.”
Trump wants to be president, his own chief of staff, communications director and press secretary, some critics have said.
“He is ‘President Chaos,’” Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official now with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, said Monday. “His spontaneity is self-defeating. … When you’re running your own show and creating so much chaos, the rest of the world can’t keep up, much less your own staff.”