Updated at 10:57 a.m. | Donald Trump is raising questions about whether Tony Podesta, the brother of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chief, received “big money” to push for the termination of Russian sanctions. But the lobbying firm he co-founded with brother John denies even doing such work for Moscow.
A Monday morning tweet from the president appeared to react to a Daily Caller report that Podesta was paid $170,000 over six months in 2016 to lobby in Washington on behalf of Sberbank. He is brother of John Podesta and the financial institution is Russia’s largest bank.
Data compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics shows the Podesta Group did indeed receive that amount from the Russian bank last year.
The conservative media outlet claimed Tony Podesta lobbied lawmakers and executive branch officials, arguing that sanctions imposed in 2014 by former President Barack Obama should be dropped. But the Podesta Group answered Trump, denying the Daily Caller report in a Monday morning statement.
David Marin, a Podesta Group spokesman, called the report “fake news,” using one of Trump’s favorite terms.
“An attempt to distract. Our work for Sberbank USA was never about getting sanctions lifted,” Marin said. “It was simply about helping to clarify to what extent our client, the U.S. subsidiary [of the Russian bank], was subject to sanctions. We confirmed they were not.”
The brothers founded the Podesta Group together, and have long had many foreign governments as clients. But that fact did not stop the 45th president of the United States from, as he often does, using a conservative media outlet’s product to try and sow seeds of doubt about a foe — in this case, a vanquished one in Clinton.
He ended the tweet with this question that no doubt will play well with his base: “Did Hillary know?”
Was the brother of John Podesta paid big money to get the sanctions on Russia lifted? Did Hillary know?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2017
The president used another Monday morning tweet to ask whether Clinton ever apologized for receiving a debate question from then-Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile. That post reflects Trump’s seeming inability to move beyond the general election, something he talks about in public remarks and tweets several times per week.
Did Hillary Clinton ever apologize for receiving the answers to the debate? Just asking!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2017
Collectively, the tweets could be Trump’s latest attempt to distract attention, especially his base, away from allegations and ongoing FBI and congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible ties between his campaign and the Kremlin.
The president’s first 10 weeks were chock full of self-inflicted wounds, including: a botched Muslim entry ban executive order, an evidence-free allegation that Obama personally ordered surveillance of Trump Tower, the botched bill to repeal and a sloppy handoff of intelligence data to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and other stumbles.
Trump also failed to strike a deal with his own House GOP caucus, killing his first try at his promise to repeal and replace Obama’s 2010 health care law. He has given off a perception he cannot control his own party by threatening House Freedom Caucus members with finding primary challengers to oust them, had a tense meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who many now regard as the true “leader of the free world,” and proposed a budget with federal cuts so deep even Republicans declared it dead on arrival.
Then there are a list of unresolved questions about Russia and his campaign, which hang over the White House like a black cloud.
The American people appear to have noticed.
Trump’s approval rating climbed into the low 40s (41 percent) late last month. (His high is 49 percent earlier this month.) But as he failed to lock in a deal on the health bill with members of his own party, Gallup’s daily tracking poll found his approval rating again falling into the 30s as the number of Americans who disapprove of his performance again approaches 60 percent.
As the Russia controversies and brewing civil war with his own party intensified last week, Gallup put his approval at a new low, 35 percent, and his disapproval level at a new high, 59 percent, by midweek. They had improved slightly, to 38 percent and 56 percent, respectively, by week’s end; a Saturday update to the poll put his approval at 38 percent and his disapproval up slightly, to 57 percent.