Jared Kushner has been pressing other White House aides to more vigorously defend the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-linked lawyer that Kushner also attended, but has faced resistance from some of Trump’s top press aides, according to six sources familiar with the matter.
Four White House officials and two outside advisers say Kushner wants the White House to more aggressively push out surrogates and talking points to change the narrative around the latest twist in the Russia scandal. Kushner has said the meeting, which has also further dragged him into the controversy, has a direct impact on Trump’s presidency, even if Trump wasn’t aware of it at the time.
But some of the communications aides, including press secretary Sean Spicer, and other senior staffers have expressed reservations. They say it’s best to leave it to outside counsel to handle the furor around Trump Jr., and fear inviting further legal jeopardy if Trump aides and allies more forcefully defend a meeting that they don’t fully know the details of, according to the sources.
The disagreement over strategy illustrates the White House’s ongoing struggle to cope with a quickly evolving scandal that has engulfed Trump’s early presidency. West Wing aides have had little control as Trump himself has appeared to exacerbate the Russia controversy, including by firing FBI Director James Comey. Some top advisers have also been blindsided by new developments, such as the Russian lawyer meeting during the height of the campaign.
After hours of little defense from the White House on Tuesday following Trump Jr.’s release of the e-mail chain setting up the controversial meeting, Kushner spoke with Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders. During the conversation, Spicer and Sanders made the case for crafting a longer-term battle strategy, according two White House officials and an outside adviser familiar with the conversation, but Kushner called for full-on combat, according to a White House official.
A source close to Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top White House adviser, said that while he doesn’t have an exact plan for an overall Russia response, he was angry that there wasn’t a more robust effort from the communications team. Kushner wanted them to complain about chyrons on cable news, call reporters to update stories with White House statements, and unleash surrogates immediately. He was angry that there were no talking points offered to surrogates, the source said.
"Jared didn’t like the idea, he wanted people to get aggressive,” said an outside adviser who was briefed on the meeting. "Jared’s the guy who is rushing the front lines and other people are saying, ‘see, wait, hold, and let’s get a battle strategy.’”
"Jared wanted to get surrogates, he wanted an op-ed in the [Wall Street] Journal and the [New York] Times, and we said, ‘Wait, we have to talk through how that will play out. Who is going to say it, who is going to put their name on the op-ed and what baggage do they have?’" the outside adviser also said.
While some in the White House have argued that this is an outside legal issue since Trump Jr. does not work in the White House, Kushner has said if the story affects the president, it’s a White House issue.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, the White House has offered a limited defense of the June 2016 meeting, which Trump Jr. set up after a publicist for a long-time Trump business partner offered a meeting with a Russian government lawyer who could give incriminating materials on Hillary Clinton as "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr. then included then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Kushner in the meeting, which has raised further questions about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus on Sunday defended the meeting as a “nothing burger” while top adviser Kellyanne Conway hit the morning shows on Monday to forcefully say there was no collusion.
But the effort has since fallen short of a full-throated defense, with Sanders holding off-camera briefings to deny any wrongdoing while also referring questions to outside counsel.
Kushner, who has his own spokesperson, has been frustrated about the level of pushback on the overall Russia controversy since former FBI director James Comey’s firing in May. He’s been calling for a reorganization of the communications shop, according to two White House officials, and has directed some of his ire at Priebus, because many of the people in that office were brought into the White House from the Republican National Committee, where he was chairman.
But some White House officials have purposefully taken a step away from the issue, as they don’t want to implicate themselves legally. Knowing less is more in the White House, aides have said.
“That’s the other problem is that some of these staffers can’t afford lawyers. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, how is [deputy press secretary] Lindsay Walters going to pay for that? How could Spicer pay for that?” the outside adviser source said.
Another outside adviser said the whole point of having an outside team of legal advisers to handle these issues is to “inoculate and insulate the staff from any possible legal exposure."
That adviser said that Spicer has privately griped about the demands from Kushner.
Meanwhile, some senior staffers like Conway and Sebastian Gorka have been more forceful in battling for their boss on cable news each day. Conway appeared on Wednesday night on Fox News with a white paper with the word "collusion," that she subsequently crossed out.
“This is to help all the people at home," she said. "What’s the conclusion? Collusion? No. We don’t have that yet. I see illusion and delusion.”