White House seeks to move beyond Russia scandal

FBI Director James Comey (left) on Capitol Hill in Washington, US on July 14, 2016 and US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, US, March 1, 2017.
FBI Director James Comey (left) on Capitol Hill in Washington, US on July 14, 2016 and US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, US, March 1, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House hopes the confirmation by James Comey that Donald Trump was not under FBI investigation can draw a line under a scandal consuming his presidency. That may be wishful thinking.

It's not often the president being publicly described as an untrustworthy liar would be welcomed by the White House as a political victory.

But Comey's searing character portrayal Thursday (June 9) also included testimony the West Wing believes can ease the pressure buckling Trump's administration.

In a sworn account, the sacked FBI chief did something Trump had pressed him to do - and which he could not while still in post: He told the world the president was not personally under investigation in the Russia probe.

Allegations that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to manipulate the 2016 election have - along with Trump's outsized personality - defined his presidency so far.

The Russia question has put an asterisk next to the president's election win, put the White House on a war footing, sunk his poll numbers and sucked up oxygen in Congress - which has launched multiple investigations.

"There's no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda," said top Trump domestic advisor Marc Short.

Even with a Republican-controlled Congress, Trump's victories so far have largely come from pulling things down - leaving a trans-Pacific trade deal or opting out of the Paris climate accord - rather than passing new policies.

Like the Iran-Contra scandal that dominated president Ronald Reagan's second term - and saw 11 officials indicted - the administration is preoccupied and being led rather than leading.

Trump and his spin doctors have faced questions on little else.

SHAKY STRATEGY

So for Republican partisans there is hope that Comey finally shattered a vast left-wing conspiracy: The idea the president was in bed with the Russians has been shown to be "fake news," right-wing news outlets claimed.

But Comey was careful to make clear that while Trump was not under counter-intelligence or criminal investigation by the time he was sacked from the FBI on May 9, that may yet change.

He was also careful to say it would be up to a special prosecutor, the former FBI chief Robert Mueller, to decide whether Trump should be investigated for obstruction of justice in trying to steer the Russia probe and in sacking Comey.

Comey testified that Trump sought to derail a probe into his one-time national security advisor Mike Flynn, which looks at best like a political miscalculation, and at worst may constitute criminal obstruction.

Equally, Comey was clear that many of Trump's inner circle - including some still in the White House - could be in serious hot water.

All that portends a lengthy investigation that will not stop until every rock has been turned over.

In an attempt to push on with business, the White House has tried to physically separate itself from the scandal.

Crisis response has been outsourced to the president's private lawyer Marc Kasowitz and veteran Republican public relations expert Mark Corallo.

That strategy already looked shaky when White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was touting "infrastructure week" on Thursday, while the rest of Washington was hanging on every word of Comey's testimony.

Then Trump tweeted.

"Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication," he declared Friday at daybreak, bringing the focus back to the White House and breaking risky new ground by accusing a former FBI director of perjury.

After such a salvo, few were talking about infrastructure week.

The White House would like to draw a line under this scandal, but Trump, desperate both to prove his legitimacy and to have the last word, is unlikely to play along.