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Controversies pile up for White House, alarming GOP

The Hill logo The Hill 2/21/2018 Jonathan Easley

a man wearing a suit and tie © Provided by The Hill President Trump's White House is consumed by controversies on several fronts, putting the administration on the defensive at a time when Republicans are increasingly worried about their electoral prospects.

Republicans would be content to spend every day between now and Election Day focused on the GOP's tax-cut bill and the economy. But those efforts are complicated by the sheer volume of controversies the White House is juggling.

"Every day they are working on another crisis is another day lost for pushing their agenda," said one former White House adviser. "At the same time, they've been doing this since day one, so it's not too unusual that they are engulfed in another crisis."

The growing list of controversies dogging the White House touch on everything from the Russia investigation to allegations that Trump has not been faithful to his wife.

Chief of staff John Kelly is on thin ice for his handling of a senior aide who resigned after his ex-wives accused him of domestic abuse, which has sparked a congressional investigation into the White House's national security clearances process.

The churn has become so extreme that news that the White House fired a fleet of drivers it paid to taxi reporters and aides around Florida because one of them was found to be carrying a gun barely cut through the noise.

The White House has hunkered down amid the storms, going a full week without briefing the press. At Tuesday's terse briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was pelted with a week's worth of pent-up questions from frustrated reporters. Sanders left the lectern after only 20 minutes. Reporters shouted questions and sarcastic remarks at her as she walked away.

The appearance of a White House in a constant state of chaos is frustrating to Republicans, who feel pressure to make the most of their majorities in the House and Senate before the midterm elections in November.

Some credit congressional Republicans for moving Trump's tax agenda through Congress despite the daily din.

"Donald Trump was a 'chaos candidate' and his presidency is no less chaotic - but other Republicans have learned to tune out the noise and focus on the American peoples' priorities," said Michael Steel, a former senior aide to former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "That's why we have seen progress on big issues like tax reform, despite the daily distractions from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Those close to the White House say the staff is used to working in the pressure cooker and that it's business as usual whether they're juggling one controversy or many.

"If you don't have the stomach to work inside the eye of the hurricane, then you don't have what it takes to work in this White House," said one GOP operative with close ties to the White House. "Anyone who has been there for any length of time is used to doing this nonstop and knows how to work under pressure and get their job done."

There's also a general belief among Trump's allies that the frenzy in Washington does not cut through to most Americans.

"A lot of this isn't normal, but America didn't vote for normal because they had normal for the last 16 years and it sucked," said one GOP lobbyist.

Still, many Republicans believe the controversies are hurting their party ahead of the midterms.

"Every day where they have another crisis, they're not promoting what they have done," the White House adviser said.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's probe tops the list of White House worries. The investigation is intensifying, with new indictments and revelations about the extent of Russian meddling dropping on a near-daily basis.

Trump has been lashing out on Twitter, casting blame for the meddling on the Obama administration, even as the White House has been forced to reckon with the growing scope of Russian influence on the 2016 election.

Senior officials in the intelligence community testified last week that the U.S. remains vulnerable to Russian interference. Sanders argued that the administration has taken measures to ensure that wouldn't happen in 2018, but critics say they're not doing enough and that Trump is focused on blaming the Obama administration rather than addressing the problem.

The controversy surrounding White House security clearances has drawn the attention of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which announced an investigation after former White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned because his former wives accused him of physical abuse. Porter had an interim security clearance.

The White House has announced changes to its security clearance process but insisted Tuesday that the changes will not impact Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has an expansive portfolio of responsibilities but has been operating on a temporary clearance.

"Nothing that has taken place will effect the valuable work that Jared is doing," Sanders said.

The White House is juggling so many controversies that some have fallen to the wayside.

Reporters did not ask Sanders about the women who have accused Trump of inappropriately touching and kissing them. One of those women was spotlighted in a front-page Washington Post story on Tuesday, provoking angry denials from the president over Twitter.

And two members of the president's Cabinet - Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt - are dealing with allegations they have been misusing taxpayer money for personal vacations or to fly first-class for government business.

Sanders said Tuesday that both matters are under review but that the president still has confidence in both men.

Meanwhile, the president is dealing with personal controversy, as two women - one an adult-film star and one a former Playboy model - have said they had affairs with him. Trump's personal attorney has admitted to paying one of the women not to talk about the alleged affair.


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