The White House Flouts the First Rule of Crisis Communications: Get the Facts Out Fast

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, has said she was giving the best information she had, even if she was not fully certain it was correct.

WASHINGTON — By the time the furor over a presidential aide accused of spousal abuse reached a second week, the White House account of what happened became less clear, not more. The contradictions were multiplying. The daily news briefing was filled with caveats.

“I can only give you the best information that I have.”

“I can’t say definitively, but I’m not aware of any communication.”

“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty, but not that I’m aware of.”

“This is the information that was given to me by those individuals.”

The rule of thumb for crisis communications in any White House is to get a complete and accurate account of events out quickly, if for no other reason than to keep a negative story from lasting longer than it otherwise might. But President Trump’s White House has thrown out the rule book in so many ways. The continuing questions about Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned after being accused of abusing two former wives, have provided a case study in how shifting stories can make matters worse.

“It’s very clear that in this situation, one of the reasons they’re struggling here is there’s not one complete set of information on what happened, why it happened and what to do to move forward,” said Doug Heye, a former congressional aide and communications director for the Republican National Committee. “This should have been a two- or three-day story.” Instead, “That this has gone on this long really speaks to the series of mistakes here.”

Critics say the conflicting accounts stem from the top, from a president who has made so many false statements or given so many contradictory versions of the truth in so many instances that even his own advisers cannot trust him. He originally said that he pushed out Michael T. Flynn, his first national security adviser, because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence. But after Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I., the president said that the deception with investigators also prompted the dismissal.

Mr. Trump likewise justified his firing of James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, on the handling of the Hillary Clinton email case at first, only to then tell NBC News that he was really thinking about the investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia. During the campaign, he acknowledged that the “Access Hollywood” tape that recorded him making crude remarks about women was authentic but last year told associates that he thinks it was fake.

The Porter case is not the only example in recent days of Mr. Trump’s team struggling to fully clarify controversial actions. The president’s associates have been slow to offer an explanation of a $130,000 payment made shortly before the 2016 election to a pornographic movie star who once claimed to have had a fling with Mr. Trump.

It took a full month after The Wall Street Journal reported that a private lawyer for Mr. Trump arranged the payment for the lawyer to tell The New York Times that the money came from his own pocket, not the president’s. Even then, he did not explain whether the president knew about the payment.

This is not the first White House where that has happened, of course, but lessons from past experience suggest why it can be corrosive. Frustrated that he was not being fully informed during the early days of the scandal resulting from President Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, Michael McCurry, then the White House press secretary, famously referred to his strategy as “telling the truth slowly.”

Indeed, much like Mr. McCurry, current White House officials are frustrated that they have not gotten a full accounting of the episode involving Mr. Porter either, with many of them angry at John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, and Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel. In individual conversations with reporters, some White House officials warn that the information they have just provided may not be true and that they themselves do not know.

Still, some Republicans said the shifting stories were not the main reason it has been hard for the White House to move on. Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, said a bigger factor was that the president’s team accepted Mr. Porter’s denials until photographs were published showing one of his ex-wives with a black eye.

And then, Mr. Fleischer noted, the president’s only public comments at first seemed sympathetic to Mr. Porter and included no concern for the accusers or an acknowledgment of the seriousness of domestic abuse. Only on Wednesday, a week after the story broke, did Mr. Trump personally condemn violence against women, and then sounded aggrieved that anyone would make an issue of the fact that he had not said anything about it until then.

“It wouldn’t have made this story go away,” Mr. Fleischer said of the White House failure to produce a clean and consistent explanation. “This story was launched because the president didn’t address the issue of domestic violence and the White House believed Rob Porter. If they had done everything else perfectly since then, it still would have been a similar controversy.”

Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, has pressed for months for a look at the process for White House security clearances. Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina and the committee chairman, said on Wednesday that the panel would investigate the White House handling of Mr. Porter’s case.

“This is an administration that has consistently not been truthful with the American people and so when you start going down that road where your leader goes, that is President Trump, then you are constantly trying to get your story straight,” said Mr. Cummings. “Every time they go down one road, either a story comes out in the newspapers or something happens that causes them to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to change course.’ ”

The White House has suggested that it did not know much about the allegations against Mr. Porter, which came up during an F.B.I. investigation for a security clearance, and that the investigation had not been completed. But Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, has made clear that the bureau had given information to the White House about Mr. Porter three times in 2017 and had finished its work.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Mr. Wray, Mr. Gowdy noted that the F.B.I. director’s account of the security clearance investigation into Mr. Porter “may contradict a statement” by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.

Ms. Sanders was left this week to offer the equivocal statements from the White House lectern about giving the best information she had even if she was not 100 percent certain it was correct.

“Look, as I said, we do the very best job we can every single day,” she said at one point on Tuesday. “We’re giving you the best information that we’re going to have. Obviously, the press team is not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements at a given moment on a variety of topics.

“But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have,” she said, which comes “from those individuals.”

As the questions persisted, Ms. Sanders’s daily briefing on Wednesday was postponed and then postponed again, before finally being canceled, citing the horrific school shooting in Florida. No briefing was held Thursday either, nor as of Thursday night had one been scheduled for Friday.

“It is nearly impossible to figure out what on earth is going on inside of this White House right now,” said Jen Psaki, who was White House communications director under President Barack Obama. Normally, she said, White House officials would gather in the same room to put together a definitive timetable of what happened “to avoid the conflicting drip, drip, drip that the Trump team has found themselves in.”

“Why hasn’t that happened?” Ms. Psaki asked. “It is hard to know. But the more we learn, the worse it looks and that is definitely not the place you want to be.”

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