There may yet be an innocent explanation for all the conversations coming to light between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the government of Russia. But the way Trump and his team have responded to questions about the contacts sure hasn’t made them look innocent. Quite the contrary.
It all begins with Trump himself, who bragged in 2013 that he was close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but now claims he has had no contact with Moscow at all — or at least (in a particularly weird denial) that he hasn’t made a phone call to Russia in 10 years.
Also suspicious: the Trump aides who secretly inserted a Russia-friendly plank in the Republican Party platform last summer, only to deny later that they had done any such thing.
Then there’s Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador, then denied it. If Flynn had merely lied to the public, he might still have his job; but he lied to Vice President Pence, so he was fired.
Then it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions told a Senate committee. Except he did.
And there’s Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, who attended a meeting with Moscow’s ambassador — a fact the White House neglected to mention until it was reported by the New Yorker.
See a pattern? False or misleading denials, followed by revelations in the media, followed by attempts to explain the denials away — followed by angry tweets from the president blaming it all on the media, the Democrats and leaks.
This is how a low-simmering controversy — in this case, the mystery of Trump’s relationship with Russia — turns into a full-blown scandal.
The underlying questions remain important: Is Trump’s fondness for Putin more than just a personal quirk? When U.S. intelligence agencies reported that Russia was meddling in the presidential election, why did Trump attack the CIA and defend Putin? Were all those conversations with Russia innocent chats about foreign policy, or evidence of collusion?
But it’s not the substance that has tripped up Trump and his entourage; it’s their inability to keep their stories straight.
It’s often claimed that in Washington scandals, the cover-up is worse than the crime. That’s not quite right. The reason the cover-up is important is that it’s easier to uncover than the underlying crime (if there was one). The cover-up is how people get caught. Just ask Flynn. And the cover-up often is what keeps a scandal alive.
Indeed, the president and his top aides already have broken all the traditional rules of scandal management.
Rule one: When there’s bad news, get it out fast, and get it out all at once.
Rule two: Don’t spend time explaining. (“When you’re explaining, you’re losing,” Ronald Reagan said.)
Rule three: Apologize and move on. Voters are often willing to forgive a politician who makes a mistake, but only if he asks their forgiveness.
Apologies, of course, are not Trump’s style. His natural reflex has been to denounce the media, blame his political opponents and remind everyone that he won.
“This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win,” the president of the United States tweeted last week. “The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!”
That kind of bluster worked for Trump during the campaign, but it’s not likely to help him as much now that he’s president. He can’t even rely on his party’s control of Congress to prevent scrutiny.
Some Republicans in the Senate, led by John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, are worried enough about a Russian threat to American democracy to insist on a serious investigation.
Last week, several leading House Republicans publicly demanded that Sessions recuse himself, including Kevin McCarthy of California, the second-ranking member of the GOP conference.
And Trump, by publicly attacking the FBI and CIA, has alienated some of the civil servants who already are investigating Russia’s actions as part of a joint task force — virtually guaranteeing that someone will leak if their findings are suppressed.
Most presidents don’t stumble into a full-blown scandal until their second term. That was true for Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Trump, however, arrived at the White House with a scandal already brewing — and a well-established record of mendacity. That record, plus the fact that he reacts to new revelations in a way that makes him look so guilty, is why this story isn’t going away.
He can rage at the media, Democrats and leakers all he wants. President Trump has brought this problem on himself.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.