Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Trump eyes White House overhaul, outside lawyers and PR team

Published:Sunday | May 28, 2017 | 5:13 AM
Stephen Miller, senior adviser to President Donald Trump (left) and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster walk from Marine One across the South Lawn to White House in Washington, yesterday as they return from Sigonella, Italy, with President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump is considering overhauling his White House staff and bringing back top campaign strategists, frustrated by what he views as his team's inability to contain the burgeoning crisis involving alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Expanding teams of lawyers and experienced public relations hands are being recruited to deal with the drumbeat of new revelations about Moscow's interference and possible improper dealings with the Trump campaign and associates. The disclosures dogged the president during his first trip abroad since taking office and threaten to overwhelm and stall the agenda for his young administration.

As he mulls outside reinforcements to his operation, Trump returned late Saturday from his nine-day journey to a White House seemingly in crisis mode, with a barrage of reports hitting close to the Oval Office and involving Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and influential adviser.

A rally planned Thursday in Iowa was postponed due to "an unforeseen change" in Trump's schedule.

On Sunday, Trump sought to downplay recent news reports portraying his administration in disarray, calling it "fake news" on Twitter. In a flurry of angry tweets, Trump said that "many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies." He added that it is "very possible that those sources don't exist but are made up by fake news writers."

The latest reports in the Russia matter said Kushner spoke with Russia's ambassador to the United States about setting up secret communications with Moscow during the presidential transition.

While overseas, Trump's longtime lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, joined a still-forming legal team to help the president shoulder the intensifying investigations into Russian interference in the election and his associates' potential involvement. More attorneys with deep experience in Washington investigations are expected to be added, along with crisis communication experts, to help the White House in the weeks ahead.

"They need to quarantine this stuff and put the investigations in a separate communications operation," said Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel for President Bill Clinton.

During the Monica Lewinsky investigation, the Clinton White House brought on a dedicated group of lawyers and a created a separate media operation to handle investigation-related inquiries so they didn't completely subsume the president's agenda.

Trump, according to one person familiar with his thinking, believed he was facing more of a communications problem than a legal one, despite the intensifying inquiries. The person, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations.

As he mulls changes, Trump has entertained bringing his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and former deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, formally back into the fold. Both Lewandowski and Bossie discussed the prospect with the president before his trip, according to one person told of the conversations.

Lewandowski's return would be a particularly notable development, given the fact that he was fired by Trump after clashing with staff and Trump's adult children. Nonetheless, Lewandowski has the trust of the president - an advantage that many of Trump's aides lack.

Trump called his maiden trip abroad a "home run," but while the White House had hoped it would serve as a reset, attention on the Russia probe has only increased.

Recently appointed special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, is starting off an investigation with a broad mandate that will allow him to probe both the possible Russian influence and whether Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation by firing FBI Director James Comey.

Comey is expected to testify before Congress after Memorial Day about memos he kept on conversations with the president that pertained to the investigation.

The White House also grappled with reports that Kushner proposed setting up a secret back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump transition team during a December meeting. Kushner spoke with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., about creating the secret line to make it easier to hold sensitive discussions about the conflict in Syria, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The back channel was meant to connect Michael Flynn, who later became Trump's first national security adviser, with Russian military leaders, said the person, who wasn't authorised to publicly discuss private policy considerations and spoke on condition of anonymity. Flynn was fired in February, officials saying he misled Vice President Mike Pence about whether he and the ambassador had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call.

Before departing Italy for the U.S., White House officials refused to address the reports about Kushner. But they did not dismiss the idea that the administration would go outside normal U.S. government and diplomatic channels for communications with other countries.

Other major issues await Trump at home. He has signalled he will make a decision on whether to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. And the search continues for an FBI director to replace Comey.

On the policy front, he must defend his budget plan, and the Republican health care bill that narrowly passed the House faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

Trump also has to decide soon on a Pentagon recommendation to add more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, as well as boosting reinforcement for the beleaguered Afghan military.