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Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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For the weary White House, Florida shooting offered a ‘reprieve’ from scandals

The White House was under siege.

Domestic abuse allegations against a senior aide were ignored, pointing to a potential high-level coverup. Two Cabinet secretaries were caught chargin taxpayers for luxury travel. A Playboy centerfold alleged an extramarital affair with the president. And the special counsel’s Russia investigation was intensifying. The tumult was so intense that there was fervent speculation that President Donald Trump might even fire his chief of staff.

But a gun massacre at a Florida high school last Wednesday, which left 17 dead, seemed to shift the media glare away from the Trump scandals and gave embattled aides an opportunity to refocus on handling a rare crisis not of their own making. While the White House mourned the loss of life in Parkland, Florida, some aides privately acknowledged that the tragedy offered a breather from the political storm.

A tentative plan for White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to address the media from the briefing room Wednesday - where he would have faced intense scrutiny over his own role in the mishandling of the domestic abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter - was scuttled.

Press staffers cited the tragedy as a reason to cancel on-camera briefings for the remainder of the week, allowing them to avoid questions about the swirling controversies. The White House could hold its next briefing on Tuesday, a full week since press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last faced reporters.

"For everyone, it was a distraction or a reprieve," said one White House official, speaking anonymously to reflect internal conversations. "A lot of people here felt like it was a reprieve from seven or eight days of just getting pummeled."

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The official likened the brief political calm to the aftermath of the October 2017 gun massacre in Las Vegas that left 58 dead and hundreds more injured. That tragedy united White House aides and the country in their shared mourning for the victims and their families.

"But as we all know, sadly, when the coverage dies down a little bit, we’ll be back through the chaos," the official said.

In the few instances in which officials answered questions, the focus was mostly on the shooting. In two appearances last Friday on Fox News Channel, deputy press secretary Raj Shah was not asked about Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin charging taxpayers for his wife’s lavish travel - a controversy that in a normal media environment might have prompted questions about whether the president would fire Shulkin.

"From an awful, cynical, purely-political point of view, the tragic events in Florida probably helped the White House this week by distracting from the awful wave of scandal and bad news they have faced," said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist.

The three-day Presidents’ Day weekend added to the hiatus, with Trump traveling to his private Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, with only a few aides and giving others on his beleaguered staff a chance to rest and recuperate.

Read More: ‘They are laughing their asses off in Moscow’: Trump takes on the FBI, Russia probe from Florida estate

Among those accompanying the president was Kelly, who earlier in the week appeared in serious jeopardy of losing his job. The chief of staff had lost the support of some senior aides, and last Tuesday evening rumors were rampant that his days - or even hours - were numbered because Trump had been sounding out friends and advisers about possible replacements.

Last Wednesday’s shooting, however, effectively stabilized Kelly’s standing internally, officials said, shifting the media glare away from him and giving the retired four-star Marine Corps general a chance to perform his job in helping coordinate the federal response. Though Trump remains frustrated and at times angry with his chief of staff, Kelly’s presence on the weekend trip to Mar-a-Lago was interpreted as an indication that he was on firmer ground with his boss.

But last Friday’s indictments by the Justice Department’s special counsel of 13 Russians for interference in the 2016 presidential election - as well as Trump’s furious and defiant cascade of Twitter responses this weekend - offered an early glimpse of the mayhem that likely awaits the administration when it returns to work on Tuesday.

The Russia matter - a tender spot for the president, which often prompts him to behave erratically - adds to the growing list of crises the White House expects to be forced to address this week in Washington.

Although they have not had to fully grapple with the Porter saga or other controversies in recent days, aides said privately that they have been working behind the scenes to square their accounts and strategize for when the issues inevitably resurface in the media.

For instance, Kelly released a five-page memo last Friday outlining changes to the security clearance process - a move to silence scrutiny about a process aides acknowledged had grown out of control, but one that raised another perceived problem, that of senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s temporary clearance.

"The national tragedy in Florida has really, for now, turned the page on some of these crises," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist close to the White House. "They’re going to come back, but what it does do is give the White House a chance to collect itself and, if they can, organize a communications strategy and get their ducks in a row."

In addition to the controversies, the White House will come under pressure this week to champion changes to the nation’s gun laws and to make progress on a stalled immigration deal that both parties believe could prove determinative in the 2018 midterm elections.

And the scandals of last week are also likely to reemerge. Kelly, as well as White House counsel Donald McGahn, have yet to explain what they knew about the allegations against Porter, when they knew it and why the declined to act until The Daily Mail reported about them two weeks ago. The public accounts offered by the White House differed from sworn testimony by FBI Director Christopher Wray last week.

In addition, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., has launched its own inquiry into the White House’s handling of the Porter allegations.

The White House has said little publicly about the travel expenditures of two Cabinet secretaries - similar to the travel scandal that forced the resignation last year of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

A damning VA inspector general report last week about Shulkin’s travel charges that the secretary’s chief of staff doctored an email and made false statements to create a pretext for the government to pay for Shulkin’s wife’s expenses on a 10-day trip to Europe last summer. The report also found that Shulkin improperly accepted tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match and directed a government aide to act as a "personal travel concierge" to him and his wife.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, meanwhile, has drawn scrutiny and ethics questions about his pricey first-class travel, both domestically and internationally. Last week, Pruitt canceled an extensive tour of Israel, amid the renewed negative attention surrounding his expensive trips.

There are still more distractions, including the now-routine dishing about the West Wing by ousted senior aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman, whom Kelly dismissed at the end of last year and has since joined the cast of the reality television show "Celebrity Big Brother."

There are also personal scandals brewing for the president. Last week, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, spoke with the New Yorker about an alleged extramarital affair she says she had with Trump starting in 2006, a little over a year after his marriage to his third wife, Melania.

Separately, a lawyer for Stephanie Clifford - the pornographic film star known as Stormy Daniels who has also alleged an extramarital affair with Trump starting in 2006 - said last week that Clifford is now free to tell her story. Clifford’s attorney argued Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, violated their nondisclosure agreement by publicly acknowledging he personally paid her $130,000 not to share her account. Clifford has announced a national tour, with appearances from coast to coast between now and November.

Even as the president was sequestered this weekend between Trump-branded properties in his private South Florida paradise, the outside turmoil nonetheless intruded. As Trump’s motorcade drove between Mar-a-Lago and the Trump International Golf Club on Sunday night, it passed by the Ultra Gentleman’s Club. A sign outside advertised an event taking place April 13-14: "Stormy Daniels Making America Horny Again."

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