Will a ‘war room’ for combatting Russia probe fallout help the White House?


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For more on the allegations surrounding Jared Kushner, the White House's handling of the Russia investigation, and a look at the president's first trip abroad, it's time for Politics Monday with Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

Welcome to you both. Happy Memorial Day.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tam, first to you.

We have just been hearing about these allegations about Jared Kushner and this possible back channel he wanted to deal with the Russians. What is your sense of how the White House is handling this and dealing with this?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, the president has been tweeting about fake news over the weekend. He sort of came home, and the Twitter machine turned right back on.

And he wasn't necessarily explicitly responding to this, but it certainly seemed like some of it may have been inspired by this, certainly.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That's the assumption.

TAMARA KEITH: And there's a lot of reporting that I have not personally been able to confirm, but that the White House is looking at creating sort of a war room-type of thing, where there would be — much like in the Clinton administration, where there would be people walled off to deal with this.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Well, and the war room would be on top of another potential shakeup, which is — we hear the story of a potential shakeup in the White House, it seems, every other week.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And this week is no different.

AMY WALTER: And this week seems to be no different, even though …

TAMARA KEITH: And thus far, it hasn't shaken.

AMY WALTER: Correct.

TAMARA KEITH: But this week could be the week that that changes.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

Usually, you do a shakeup because you know that you have a problem or you gaps and you're going to fill those gaps. The challenge here, though, is, even in building the war room, what they're talking about is bringing people in to fill the gaps who have the same problems and challenges as the people who are currently there in the White House.

They don't have any governing experience. They have loyalty to Donald Trump, but don't have the breadth of experience in dealing with Washington that you need to do to set up as something as complicated as a war room. And in dealing with Washington, especially the legislative process, they still don't have people in positions who can go up and work with Capitol Hill.

Most important, you can have a war room, you can have a war plan, but if your general — in this case, it's Donald Trump — isn't following the plan and is tweeting or is going and giving interviews that contradict the plan, then none of this really matters.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Makes your job very tough.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For those people who are not following the scuttlebutt about this, if there's a shakeup, they're talking about, what, in the communications department of the White House?

TAMARA KEITH: Yes, most of the focus has been on the communications, which that seems like treating the surface-level thing and there's something very deep going on well below the surface.

The White House certainly has had trouble in the ways it has communicated. Part of that is that, you know, they do have policy proposals that they're trying to push out, but often they don't provide the information backing it up.

You know, let's go with the president's tax proposal. Now, in part, that was because the president in an interview said, I'm going to have a tax proposal and you need to get it together in a week. And so they threw together a tax proposal in a week.

There wasn't a lot of communication or anything about sort of like what this thing is. Ultimately, it was on one sheet of paper, and there was no electronic version. It was just a sheet of paper that was passed around, and then we would take pictures and text it to our colleagues.

So, that is not like a fully built-up plan. That's not a rollout. And they have been not doing a lot of rollouts. So, even now, they're not in control of their narrative with a lot of the stuff because there are leaks and there are stories and every day there is a story.

But the things that they do control, they have not done it in a way that past White Houses have, where they have been able to sort of more dominate the conversation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What does this do to the president's larger agenda? It seems like if they're not — they have got the White House, they have got the Senate, they have got the Congress.

This is their time.

AMY WALTER: This is exactly right.

He's going to be judged — this president is going to be judged on how well he governs. And his party is going to be judged on that more quickly than he is. They're up in 2018.

The challenge isn't simply that it is difficult to get some of these big things through, right? It's hard enough to get health care, tax reform, infrastructure, but when the president lacks the focus and the discipline to help make this happen.

So part of the challenge is, if you're going to stick — as I said, you're going to stick with a war plan, then stick with the war plan. But when you have your plan going forward, and then a tweet comes from the president of the United States that then takes us off-track and back into this morass, it seems every time the White House seems to be moving on, getting to the next topic, the president, whether by tweets or by interviews or saying something off the cuff, brings them right back to where they started.

If it were up to the president, his communication strategy would simply be for him to get on every day in front of — or behind the podium, he would be the only messenger. He sees himself still as the best messenger.

But the chaos candidacy that worked for him in 2016, it's the style that worked for him in the business world, of course it can translate, he believes. Of course it is going to translate into governing. It doesn't. It hasn't.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You were with the president when he seemed to be doing some of what Amy is describing. This was on his whole trip abroad.

What do they look back at, the administration, as the successes of that trip?

TAMARA KEITH: The remarkable thing is, throughout the trip, we were on our way to Israel — or we were on our way to Rome, and we were asking an administration official, how did it go in Israel? What did you think?

And they kept going back to Saudi Arabia. Every — every time that they had a chance, administration officials went back to Saudi Arabia.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: They saw that as the highlight of the trip?

TAMARA KEITH: I think they really did see that as the highlight of the trip.

And one thing that stands out to me about that is that they announced nearly $400 billion in deals, and we still don't have the details of what those deals are. And it's not for lack of trying to get that information. I have been asking on a regular basis, you know, hey, that arms deal, what's it made up of? Where does the other $400 billion come from — or $300 billion?

And it just has not been forthcoming. But they really do believe that that beginning part — you know, one administration official said that the president brought the Muslim world together. They talk about it in superlatives.


One of the things that we also saw, the president went and signed some big deals in Saudi Arabia. He also went and told the Europeans, hey, you guys got to pay out more for NATO.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On some level, this is what his base expects of him.

AMY WALTER: Absolutely.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I'm going to go rattle the cage. I'm going to tell those euro guys what's what.

Like, this has to resonate very strongly with them.

AMY WALTER: Well, this is — he campaigned as an America-first candidate.

He campaigned as somebody who was very skeptical of these multinational deals. He was supportive of Brexit. He was very skeptical of NATO. So what we saw of President Trump in Europe was what we saw of President Trump as a candidate.

So, that, we shouldn't be surprised at all about. I think there were mixed signals, at the same time, from administration officials, saying, well, of course we're still very supportive of NATO. Of course, even though we didn't explicitly, the president didn't explicitly use the term Article 5 in his speech, of course he supports that.

So I still think there's some tension there. But it's pretty clear that, when the president made his statements as a candidate, he's following through with those as a president.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thank you both very much.

AMY WALTER: You're welcome.

TAMARA KEITH: You're welcome.

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