Can the White House insulate itself from Russia questions? That depends on Trump

The Trump administration has adopted a comms tactic from an old political adversary as it tries to contain the #RussiaGate scandal. DC-based communications pros are skeptical it will work.

In a statement overshadowed this week by President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during an off-camera briefing that he will no longer take questions about investigations into the Russia scandal.

Instead, all media queries about Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 presidential election will be directed to Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz.

Several Washington, DC-based PR pros say this is the wrong move by an administration that consistently goes against the political PR playbook. Alex Conant, partner at Firehouse Strategies, a Republican-leaning PR firm, notes that "lawyering up and shutting up is the wrong approach 99% of the time" in a crisis.

"I am dumbfounded that Trump and [son-in-law and senior adviser] Jared Kushner have not done an interview since the media reported that Kushner tried to establish a back channel with the Russians. That is just PR 101," he says. "Instead it has been this steady drip for months with no end in sight about Russia, which is harming his presidency, and it will continue to be an issue until he either gives a press conference or sits down with a respected journalist and answers all the outstanding questions about that episode."

That drip of stories scrutinizing Kushner’s meetings with prominent Russians turned into a steady stream as Memorial Day weekend began. The Washington Post reported Friday evening that Kushner is a "significant focus" of the FBI probe into alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign team and Russia during the presidential election. Other media outlets quickly confirmed the story. Time magazine also made Kushner, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, the cover subject of this week’s issue.

Richard Keil, EVP at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, agrees that "a sense of order and discipline has been sorely lacking from the White House comms operation." Yet he argues the Trump administration was smart to establish a single point of contact for questions about Russia.

"It harkens back to the Clinton administration during the impeachment scandal when the White House appointed a spokesman to handle questions just on that," he explains. "By doing that, to some extent it enables the rest of the president’s communicators to talk about the political and policy issues of the day, without constantly being dragged back into questions about the scandal."

It could also "stop further erosion among people outside Trump’s core base, because that is where his favorable poll numbers have been declining," he adds.

Others say that shifting the burden of answering questions about the Russia scandal to one person can free up the rest of the administration to focus on protecting and creating jobs, improving schools, and the other major concerns of most voters. Levick SVP Dan Rene contends that as much as Russia has been covered, it is too inside baseball for most voters.

"The more opponents try to distract with the Russia narrative, the more frustrated these voters become. The unsupported narrative about Russia – and Trump’s fight of it – will surely rally support around the president," Rene says. "Trump and his communicators should continue to focus on work they are doing to create jobs, improve the economy, etc. While that will not stop the Russia questions, rather than score political points in a fight, they should work to draw a direct line to how the fight is actually getting in the way of progress that everyone can support."

Russia crisis meets White House comms team in flux
The White House is also without a communications director as the Russia scandal becomes more serious. On Tuesday morning, Michael Dubke tendered his resignation citing "personal reasons," though he reportedly agreed to stay on through Trump’s first overseas trip in office. The president is looking to further shake up how his administration communicates with the public after months of criticism of how he and his staffers repeatedly contradict each other and Spicer’s often-combative briefings, according to several reports.

Trump himself has expressed unhappiness with his communications team. In an interview with Fox News at the end of February, the commander-in-chief gave himself an "A" for achievements, but a "C" for the way he and his administration has conveyed his ideas to the public. In a series of tweets posted last month, the president said it is impossible for his surrogates to issue talking points from the podium with perfect accuracy because of his activity level, saying, "Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future press briefings and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy."

Communicators say Trump himself is to blame for the lack of a cohesive communications strategy, including on Russia. That’s also driving away prospective replacements for top-level staffers, they add. Other DC-based communicators note that the high-stress, aggressively competitive work environment in the Trump White House likely hampers its comms operation.

"Trump is most comfortable talking with the press directly. He has his own relationships, not just with reporters, but network anchors and executives, and he has his own way of communicating – he is a pioneer in how to use Twitter effectively," adds Conant. "It is such a challenge to communicate on his behalf that I think any candidates for the comms team would be concerned they wouldn’t be successful in the job."

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