White House mulls 'war room' amid Russia crisis

Nesting dolls painted with the images of Mr Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a gift shop in Moscow. The latest White House furore ignited after it was reported that Mr Jared Kushner proposed to the Russian ambassador to set up a s
Nesting dolls painted with the images of Mr Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a gift shop in Moscow. The latest White House furore ignited after it was reported that Mr Jared Kushner proposed to the Russian ambassador to set up a secret, bug-proof link with the Kremlin.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Aim of agile communications unit is to contain Russia scandal threatening Trump presidency

WASHINGTON • Mr Donald Trump, just back from his first overseas trip as United States president, geared up to combat concerns over aides' ties to Russia as news reports say the White House wants to form a rapid-fire communications unit to respond to the controversy.

Mr Trump and his advisers, according to several aides and outside Trump allies, are considering a retooling of his senior staff and the creation of a "war room" within the White House to contain the escalating Russia crisis that threatens to consume his presidency.

The latest furore was stirred up after the Washington Post reported late last Friday that Mr Jared Kushner - arguably Mr Trump's closest White House aide, and husband to the President's eldest daughter Ivanka - made a pre-inauguration proposal to the Russian ambassador to set up a secret, bug-proof link with the Kremlin.

Mr Kushner went so far as to suggest using Russian diplomatic facilities in the US to protect such a channel from being monitored, the Post said, quoting US officials briefed on intelligence reports.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster refused to talk about the allegations. But he said that in general: "We have backchannel communication with a number of countries. What that allows you to do is communicate in a discrete manner."

He added: "I would not be concerned about it."

The report, if confirmed, would raise new questions about the Trump team's relationship with the Russians, who US intelligence agencies say tried to sway the November presidential election in Mr Trump's favour.

Mr Kushner went so far as to suggest using Russian diplomatic facilities in the US to protect such a channel from being monitored, the Post said, quoting US officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Some White House aides have discreetly discussed among themselves whether Mr Kushner should play a lesser role - or even go on leave - at least until the Russia-related issues calm down.

Those close to Mr Kushner said he has no plans to take a reduced role, although people who have spoken to him say that he is increasingly weary of the non-stop frenzy.

White House officials are also seeking ways to revive Mr Trump's stalled policy agenda in Congress and to more broadly overhaul the way the White House communicates with the public. That includes proposals for more travel and campaign-style rallies nationwide, so that Mr Trump can speak directly to his supporters, as well as changes in the pace and nature of news briefings, probably including a diminished role for embattled White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

Although much remained fluid on Saturday, the beefed-up operation could include the return of some of Mr Trump's more combative campaign aides, including Mr Corey Lewandowski, who was fired as campaign manager nearly a year ago; and Mr David Bossie, who was deputy campaign manager and made his name in politics by investigating former US president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary for two decades.

Both men have been part of ongoing discussions about how to build a war room that have been led in part by chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

Meanwhile, White House counsel Donald McGahn is considering expanding his office, and an outside legal team led by Mr Trump's New York lawyer Marc Kasowitz is preparing to meet the President and guide him, including on whether he should continue to tweet about the Russia probe.

The expected revamp comes at a key juncture in Mr Trump's presidency, as his job-approval ratings continue to sag.

Conversations about a war room have focused on a model similar to what emerged during Mr Clinton's tenure to cope with a sex scandal and other crises.

Mr Clinton had pulled together a team of lawyers and communication and political aides to deal with those issues, apart from the regular White House structure, to let other business proceed as normally as possible.

"The bottom line is they need fresh legs; they need more legs," said Mr Barry Bennett, who served as a political adviser to Mr Trump during the general election campaign last year.

"They are in full-scale war, and they are thinly staffed."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'White House mulls 'war room' amid Russia crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe