As Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation enters a new stage, Donald Trump’s White House is spinning furiously.
In the wake of the indictments of former Trump campaign staffers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and the public news of campaign adviser George Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, leading White House players have done their best to downplay, minimize, and explain away the scandal.
To do so, they tend to rely on six key talking points and arguments. Some focus on the facts of the matter at issue, and others are attempts to change the subject altogether. And while some of these points are generally fair ones, others are rather misleading.
Overall, though, it’s clear that President Trump, White House chief of staff John Kelly, and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have all been reading from the same playbook as they’ve responded to the scandal in recent days. Here’s what they’re saying.
Talking point No. 1: There was no collusion
This is a simple one. President Trump has said repeatedly that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia — suggesting that the media and investigatory interest in the topic is a pointless waste of time and distraction.
And, well, this is the big question, here, isn’t it?
There were clearly some efforts from Trump associates to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians — as seen, for instance, in the meeting Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner took with a Russian lawyer. There’s also a very long list of circumstantial material, odd events, and links between Trump associates and Russians, and Trump’s own repeated efforts to discourage investigations into the matter seem suspicious.
Still, according to the current public evidence, the speculation that Trump or his top aides could be implicated in some major Russian election interference scandal remains entirely unproven. There remains no public evidence that any of these curious Russian contacts or links evolved into any concrete collusion effort with participation from the Trump side during the campaign.
So from what we know it’s still quite possible that Trump is correct here. However, rather than take his word for it, it seems to make more sense to let special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into the matter proceed.
Talking point No. 2: The investigation hurts Trump’s ability to get things done
In an appearance on Fox News Monday night, chief of staff John Kelly argued that the investigation should wind down because it was too “distracting” for Trump.
“It is very distracting to the president as it would be to any citizen to be investigated for something while at the same time trying to carry the weight of what being president of the United States means on his shoulder,” Kelly said.
As with previous presidents (and presidential candidates) who’ve been under investigation for major wrongdoing know, scandal defense strategizing does take up a lot of time. Scandal also dominates the news, and it can sap a politician’s popularity, and, yes, make it harder to get things done.
Yet Trump has brought much of these problems on himself. If he hadn’t recklessly fired FBI Director James Comey and then gone on television to say he did so because of the Russia scandal, Robert Mueller would never have been given this high-profile special counsel appointment. If he was acting in any way that gave the political system confidence that the truth of this matter would be fully investigated, this investigation might not have swallowed up so much of his presidency.
Talking point No. 3: People outside Washington don’t care about this
In the same Fox News interview, Kelly went on to claim that beyond political obsessives, the American people simply don’t care about the Russia scandal.
“The US Population outside of the echo chamber that is Washington essentially could care less,” Kelly said. “If you go out there in the hinterlands, people don’t care. They’re disgusted.”
This, of course, has little bearing on whether potentially criminal wrongdoing should be investigated. But this idea has been much-debated in political circles. Democrats in particular are split in their views about whether key midterm election voters are more likely to change their voting behavior because of a dramatic scandal or because of more traditional political issues.
Still, a quick glance at Trump’s approval ratings appears to show a decline of a few points after he fired Comey back on May 9. In fact, his average approval rating has never returned to where it was before Comey’s firing, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tally. So there’s some indication that at least some voters care.
Talking point No. 4: Paul Manafort’s misdeeds happened before the campaign
According to reports, Trump and his aides initially reacted with relief when the indictment of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates became public Monday morning. That’s because the indictment almost entirely focused on misdeeds of theirs that occurred before they got involved in Trump’s 2016 campaign — it wasn’t about Russian interference with the election at all.
“As I understand it, what they were indicted for was long before they ever met Donald Trump or had any association with the campaign,” Kelly said on Fox News. “Paul Manafort was brought in to lead the delegate process, which he did, and was dismissed not too long after that,” Sanders said at the White House press briefing. And the president tweeted:
It is indeed accurate that Manafort and Gates were indicted for alleged money laundering and false statements regarding their foreign work for the Ukrainian government, nearly all of which happened before they joined Trump’s campaign. (Some of the alleged false statements did happen after the campaign.)
Still, it remains true that Trump hired someone now accused of laundering $18 million to run his presidential campaign. And Sanders’s effort to downplay Manafort’s role is really a stretch — he didn’t just round up delegates, he was Trump’s campaign chair and ran the campaign for several months.
Talking point No. 5: Nobody ever heard of George Papadopoulos
On Monday, news got out for the first time that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, had been arrested back in July and pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians during the campaign. Inconveniently for the White House, this complicated the talking point that Mueller’s investigation had nothing to do with the Trump campaign.
But Sarah Sanders downplayed Papadopoulos’s importance, claiming that he was “the member of a volunteer advisory council that met one time,” and emphasizing that he was a volunteer. President Trump made a similar claim on Twitter Tuesday morning:
This is at least somewhat plausible. Yes, Trump himself named Papadopoulos as one of five of his campaign’s foreign policy advisers in a March 2016 interview with the Washington Post. And yes, Papadopoulos attended one roundtable briefing with Trump and other advisers at the end of that month. (He’s in this picture.)
But the Trump campaign of March 2016 was a ramshackle, seat-of-its-pants operation. Papadopoulos was a little-known figure apparently put on a list of advisers as an effort to make the campaign appear more serious on foreign policy. He had little experience and indeed there’s little indication that he had a ton of influence during the campaign.
Yet the real question with Papadopoulos is about whether he told other Trump advisers about the tip got that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. Did he tell others in the campaign about this, and if so, what did they do with that information?
Talking point No. 6: Why aren’t Hillary Clinton and the Democrats being investigated
Finally, for months, Trump and the White House have been attempting to change the subject to what they allege are various misdeeds committed by Democrats that they claim should be investigated more thoroughly and covered more by the media.
There are several elements to this, pushed by Republican politicians and conservative media — the revelation that Hillary Clinton’s campaign funded the salacious dossier alleging Trump/Russia misdeeds, a misleading effort to revive an old controversy over a uranium deal the Obama administration approved back in 2010, and the involvement of Democratic superlobbyist Tony Podesta (the brother of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta) in Manafort’s Ukraine work.
And the president himself, in particular, has been increasingly insistent that he wants his political opponents, and not him, investigated.
Yet the whole point of a special counsel like Robert Mueller is to investigate the current regime, not the previous one. He is appointed so he’ll have a measure of independence from the Justice Department’s chain of command, and won’t be concerned with trying to hold on to his government job and please his bosses. Plus, there are indications that Mueller is perfectly willing to investigate Democrats over activities that come to light as part of his larger probe — Tony Podesta has already stepped down from his lobbying firm due to reports that Mueller is scrutinizing his foreign work.
Yet if separate wrongdoing comes to light about the Clintons or any Democrats, it should be investigated through the normal governmental channels. It would be highly inappropriate for the president of the United States to try and dictate who should and shouldn’t be investigated, particularly if they are his political rivals. If the Justice Department actually responded to his tweets by opening new investigations, we should be worried.