- President Donald Trump faced a public relations crisis following his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week.
- In watching the week’s events transpire, a former senior administration official told Business Insider it was unclear to them whose, if anyone’s, advice the president was taking regarding the fallout from the summit.
- “In situations like this when he gets into bunker mode, he kind of goes back to his true believers like [Corey] Lewandowski, David Bossie, and his old friends like Chris Ruddy and Tom Barrack,” another former administration official told Business Insider.
It was just after mid-morning on the East Coast on Monday, and President Donald Trump had a public relations crisis on his hands.
He had just completed a press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin that had followed an hours-long private meeting between the two in Helsinki, Finland. And his answers caused widespread alarm and outrage across the Atlantic.
During the press conference, Trump cast doubt on the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. He also attacked his Democratic opponents and the FBI, and said he held both countries accountable for the state of their relations.
“My people came to me – [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, some others – they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said of election interference. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
He cited Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denials of such interference. And he seemed to endorse a plan Putin proposed that would allow special counsel Robert Mueller’s team to work with Russian investigators to question 12 Russians indicted last week in the investigation into Russian election meddling.
Within hours, Democrats and Republicans, pundits, intelligence officials, and others were condemning the remarks. The word “treason” was floating around social media. People were speculating whether Putin had some sort of leverage over Trump that was making him behave in this manner.
A day later, Trump offered up a small correction to his comments.
Trump said he misspoke alongside Putin and actually meant to say the opposite of what he said – that he didn’t see any reason why it “wouldn’t” be Russia who interfered in the election.
But Trump made some adjustments to the written statement he read aloud, adding that the meddlers “could be other people also.”
The fallout continued. In the days that followed, the White House said Putin’s pitch to Trump – one he seemed intrigued by – involving turning over American citizens to the Russians for questioning was in fact something the president disagreed with. Meanwhile, the press went back and forth with the White House over the meaning of a “no” Trump said when a reporter asked whether he felt Russians were actively trying to influence US elections.
To cap it all off, the White House announced late in the week that the wheels were in motion on getting Putin to visit Washington, DC.
‘When he gets into bunker mode, he kind of goes back to his true believers’
One question that seemed natural following the week was whose advice, if anyone’s, was Trump taking in handling this episode.
In watching the week’s events transpire, a former senior administration official told Business Insider it was unclear to them whose, if anyone’s, advice the president was taking regarding the fallout from the summit.
In recent months, it has been reported that Trump has increasingly been acting alone when faced with such crises, passing on the advice of some of his top staffers. In March, The New York Times reported that Trump “now believes he has settled into the job enough to rely on” his instincts “rather than the people who advise him.”
In April,the Associated Press reported that Trump was tuning out the advice of his staff as a result of both personnel changes and his own attitude toward the job. One big moment was the departure of staff secretary Rob Porter, who was accused of spousal abuses by both of his ex-wives. Trump had viewed Porter as “an honest broker” who would “make sure” different opinions were being “faithfully presented to him.”
Another former Trump administration official told Business Insider that at the moment, the person within the White House who has the most influence with Trump in regards to advice on how to handle such a crisis is Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive who was recently hired as deputy chief of staff for communications.
As the AP reported in April, Fox News can sometimes be a place where Trump finds opinions he considers to be in his best interest moreso than within his own White House, and Shine’s high-profile position at the network lends him additional credibility with the president.
More often, however, Trump goes outside the building when seeking advice, this former staffer said.
“In situations like this when he gets into bunker mode, he kind of goes back to his true believers like [Corey] Lewandowski, David Bossie, and his old friends like Chris Ruddy and Tom Barrack,” the person said.
This week, the president did appear to accept some internal advice. In a private conversation with the president, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged him to clarify his remarks from the Putin press conference, NBC News reported. He made his clarification soon after.
“He absorbs a lot of information, he’s an information junkie, but then he makes his own decision,” Ruddy continued. “He built his brand and career over 40 years being his own PR guru. He understands how to create publicity and spin news like no one other. They used to call Reagan the great communicator, but Trump has outpaced him for sure.”
Whether or not Trump accepted the advice of others regarding his remarks, Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who was once a high-ranking official in President George W. Bush’s administration, told Business Insider it was clear the president’s “heart wasn’t in it” regarding his walk-back.
“I think the advice and decision to try to clean up the press conference was correct, and the president was smart to allow it,” he said. “But the route to walking back the press conference was never going to run through something as simple as a double negative and an apostrophe. It should have included a stronger recitation of the president’s tough record on Russia, and a reaffirmation of his views on American exceptionalism.”
The president, and the administration at large, he said, needs to “think in terms of legacy, not news cycles.”
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