Adam Goldberg: Trump administration making mistakes with Russia collusion probe
It's an investigation the Clinton administration would have known how to handle
Editor’s Note: Adam Goldberg served as special associate counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996-1999. He is co-founder of Trident DMG, a crisis management and strategic communications firm. You can follow him on Twitter at @AWGoldberg. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
For over two years, I served as special associate counsel to President Bill Clinton, working to help manage various scandals.
If you think President Donald Trump’s crisis-management methods are hard to understand, I can tell you that they utterly perplex those of us who plied the trade in the Clinton White House. We sit and watch one avoidable rookie mistake after another, wondering if Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer remember the 1990s. Notwithstanding the gravity of the issues confronting the Trump administration, I wanted to offer some advice in the spirit of bipartisanship.
As White House chief of staff and press secretary, both Priebus and Spicer need to up their crisis game considerably. Until they do, the White House will continue to suffer damaging leaks – like Tuesday’s, when it was reported that the President sought the help of the director of national intelligence and the director of the National Security Agency to persuade the public there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. Moreover, for the moment, former FBI Director James Comey is slated to testify publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee after Memorial Day. And all this is happening to a White House staff who have a President who has turned self-inflicted wounds into an art form.
Why turn to the Clinton White House for advice? That’s a fair question, but the answer is simple: experience. Let’s run through a list of some of the more significant congressional, FBI, independent counsel, and media investigations the Clinton White House had to deal with: Whitewater; Travelgate; Arlington Cemetery burials; technology transfers to China; campaign finance; and impeachment. If you sense from this list that the Clinton White House must have gotten good at managing scandals, you’d be right. So it would be wise for the Trump White House, and Priebus and Spicer especially, to heed three particular tips.
First, stop talking in the briefing room about the Russia investigation. A major Clinton White House innovation was creating a comprehensive team inside the White House counsel’s office who could do everything – the legal, political, and communications parts of every investigation. When White House press secretary Mike McCurry got a question on sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom, for example, he didn’t answer it; he just referred it to the counsel’s office and we handled it. That way, McCurry got to talk policy and the people who worked 24/7 on the investigations were the ones to speak to the press about them.
Second, the appointment of a special prosecutor could be the best thing to happen to you. Not only does it limit public testimony and give cover to congressional Republicans to limit the scope of their investigations, it gives you a viable, potential adversary down the road should Mr. Mueller do anything controversial. So, for now, show due respect and offer full cooperation. If Mueller turns into Ken Starr – acting like an over-the-top Inspector Javert and briefing reporters in his driveway while taking out the garbage – you’ll have your chance to make the case that he’s a power-hungry prosecutor who’s acting against the public interest.
Third, the mainstream press is your friend. I know this is hard for you to believe, but trust me. Once you’ve got your team set up in the counsel’s office, assemble the most damaging information that relates to the investigations and give it all to the press in its full and correct context. That’s right, be transparent. When dealing with the campaign finance allegations, we couldn’t get the information out fast enough – Secret Service visitor logs, fundraising documents, and even videos of White House events (once we found them). Doing this ensured that the related congressional investigations were old news and didn’t break new ground. Hence, they had little impact.
If you think the information you don’t want released isn’t going to get out anyway, you’re wrong. It will, and the choice here is: does the public learn that information on your terms or on the terms of any FBI leakers, White House leakers, congressional investigators, James Comey, and others caught up in the mess.
Just imagine how different your life would be if you had followed just these three pieces of advice over the last two months. Adopting these pointers now won’t be fun – investigations never are – but it will give you more time to focus on policy and overall make this process less painful.