Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton’s spokesman during the impeachment mess, used to describe his strategy as “telling the truth slowly.”
The Trump White House seems to have upgraded that approach to very slowly.
Damage control is an art, and it’s one the current administration has not yet mastered. Even if you believe the whole Russia story is overblown and being pushed by a hostile media, a president and his team have to be able to minimize controversial revelations—especially when, as in the case of Donald Trump Jr., they are based on facts.
By not disclosing there was another person in the meeting between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Don Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, the White House allowed NBC to break the story Friday just as the uproar was starting to fade a bit. Not only did administration officials fail to get ahead of the news, they turned what could have been a two-day story into a weeklong mess.
And the fact that the other participant, Rinat Akhmetshin, is not just a Russian-American lobbyist but a former Soviet intelligence officer just makes it look like the White House had something to hide. It may or may not mean anything that, as the Daily Beast, reported, Akhmetshin was accused in a lawsuit of hacking into two computer systems of a Russian mining company. But let’s just say the appearance isn’t great.
And Akhmestshin told the AP that the Russian lawyer, Veselnitskaya, had given the Trump team a printout of questionable donations to the DNC, as opposed to offering nothing at all on the Democrats.
When Don Jr. did his interview with Sean Hannity, the Fox host asked him if he had met with any other Russians. Not “in a formalized meeting or anything like that, because why would I?” Trump said.
At another point Hannity asked, “So as far as you know, as far as this incident is concerned, this is all of it?”
“This is everything. This is everything,” the president’s son replied.
The better course, in retrospect, would have been to say by the way, there was another guy in the meeting, here is his name, I didn’t know anything about him. That would have been plugged into the stories but not left on the street like a ticking time bomb.
Keep in mind that Don Jr. originally gave the New York Times, which broke the story, a narrow statement saying the meeting was primarily about a Russian adoption program. White House officials drafted that statement, and I’m told it was over the objections of the president’s son, who wanted to provide a more detailed statement.
In the second statement, Don Jr. acknowledged that he took the meeting because he was told Veselnitskaya had opposition research on Hillary Clinton, and that this was authorized by the Russian government—but turned out to be a “pretext” to talk about U.S. sanctions that led to the elimination of the adoption program.
And the younger Trump released the emails setting up the meeting only when told that the Times was about to publish them.
The president defended his son, and the story was starting to play itself out when the latest shoe dropped.
Maybe the media, as usual, are making too much of this. Maybe there’s a gotcha element to the coverge. With some Democrats crying "treason," the press is again ready to go beyond the available facts.
But it’s harder for an administration to make that case when it holds back relevant details until they dribble out in the press--as Ari Fleischer agreed on yesterday's "Media Buzz."
Lanny Davis, the Clinton White House lawyer who dealt with the accumulated scandals, later published a book titled “Truth to Tell: Tell It All, Tell It Early, Tell It Yourself.”
The Trump team might check it out if it wants to stop getting blindsided on this Russia story. If it’s going to leak out anyway, telling it early is the best course.