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The White House's Credibility Problem Is Getting Worse — Not Better

All the latest about the trust deficit at the White House and what comes next on Capitol Hill
Image: Trump holds press conference
President Donald J. Trump participates in a press conference in the East Room in of the White House in Washington on Feb. 16, 2017.Shawn Thew / EPA

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

The White House’s credibility problem is getting worse, not better…

WASHINGTON — It’s no secret that the Trump administration and its allies have a significant trust deficit with the press, Congress and much of the American public. But lately, it seems to be going south faster than ever. Consider, in just the last few days:

  • White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Donald Trump was actually involved in drafting his son’s misleading statement about his June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer, a detail which Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow flatly denied just a few weeks ago.
  • Sanders also suggested that the original statement by Trump Jr. was “true” even though it omitted crucial details about why he took the meeting in the first place.
  • After saying earlier this spring that he was unaware of the story, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged meeting with a donor who pushed a conspiracy-laden Fox News report about dead DNC staffer Seth Rich.
  • And then there’s this: In an appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski recommended Richard Cordray’s removal from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an out-of-the-blue reference that prompted this exchange:

CHUCK TODD: I have to ask this, considering that you brought this up. Do you have any business interest here? Do you have a client that wants to see this happen?COREY LEWANDOWSKI: No, no. I have no clients whatsoever. But what I do know, two weeks ago, Richard Cordray through the CFPB passed a rule with the antithesis of, you know, it’s going to be about a trillion dollars worth of arbitration that the government’s going to have to go through now, and he’s an unelected official, he’s announced — all but announced, Chuck, that he’s running for governor of Ohio, and if he wants to run for governor of Ohio, go run for governor of Ohio, but don’t do so while you’re sitting in a federal office right now.

That simply wasn’t true. As the New York Times wrote yesterday “Among the first new clients of Lewandowski Strategic Advisors is an Ohio-based company called Community Choice Financial. The company is a leader in the payday lending industry, which has faced heightened federal scrutiny in recent years…. A draft contract obtained by The Times indicates that in July, after Mr. Lewandowski left Avenue, Community Choice Financial offered him a $20,000-a-month retainer in return for “strategic advice and counsel designed to further the goals of Community Choice Financial.”

… And it’s why Team Trump’s relationship with the press continues to be so contentious

It may not feel like news to point out that politicians and Washington operators don’t always tell the truth until overwhelming evidence forces them to come clean, but Trump and his allies have taken that dynamic to a whole new level.

If the White House wants to know why the press is getting more antagonistic, stop misleading all the time. You'll be shocked at how much better relations are when you tell the truth the first time.

By the way, this credibility gap is why a bizarre allegation like the one made in a new lawsuit against Fox News — suggesting that the White House and even the president himself may have been involved in helping to push a conspiracy theory about Seth Rich — is getting some serious coverage.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders flatly denied the allegations yesterday, saying “The president had no knowledge of the story and it’s completely untrue that he or the White House had involvement in the story.” But when the White House’s habit of misleading on small stuff is so widespread, every denial deserves a more skeptical treatment.

DEA acting administrator refutes Trump on police misconduct

One more note on the heed paid to the words coming out of the White House: You know things have gone off the rails when a federal agency tells its employees to ignore a statement by the president of the United States — but that’s where we are.

NBC’s Pete Williams and Jay Blackman report that acting DEA administrator Chuck Rosenberg sent a memo on Saturday to the DEA workforce explicitly rejecting Trump’s comments encouraging police officers to be “rough” with those they arrest. The White House says the president was making “a joke,” but it’s evident that career professionals aren’t treating it that way.

Give John Kelly some credit for Week One so far

A curious thing happened yesterday. Faced with a scathing critique by fellow Republican Jeff Flake, Donald Trump didn’t say … anything! We don’t know for sure that incoming chief of staff John Kelly deserves the credit for the president’s uncharacteristic silence, but it’s still worth noting how badly the day could have gone if Trump had engaged in a fight with Flake.

Instead, rather than being forced to defend their colleague against a barrage of criticism from Trump, GOP senators on Capitol Hill actually created a little bit of distance between themselves and their Arizona colleague. Perhaps there’s a lesson in here for Trump: A little bit of discipline does, in fact, pay off.

Will tax reform be bipartisan, or will Republicans go it alone?

To modify the old saying: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again — but maybe try a different strategy while you’re at it. With the White House and Republicans on the Hill starting to talk up tax reform, it’s still not exactly clear what strategy the GOP will use. Will they try a bipartisan effort through regular order, or go it alone?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters yesterday that Republicans “will need to use reconciliation,” dismissing Democratic tax policy demands as unreasonable. But if Republicans go straight to reconciliation rules to pass a tax bill without any Democratic help, why would they expect it to turn out any better than the health care push?

Shutting Democrats out from the start simply guarantees that Republicans will be fighting among themselves — and that they’ll be working with exceptionally tight margins, just as they were on health care. Why not at least go through the motions of courting Democrats for a bipartisan bill? The worst that could happen is that Republicans can walk away from the table later and more credibly make Democrats a foil.

Tillerson puts out a hand on North Korea

And finally, don’t miss this: Speaking about North Korea days after Pyongyang tested its second intercontinental ballistic missile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested yesterday that he’s hoping for some kind of direct talks. “We hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them,” he said. That’s not an insignificant offer — in fact, it’s probably the boldest diplomatic effort by Tillerson in one of these global hot spots.