White House seeks to wall off Russia questions

The White House on Wednesday took its first public steps to cordon off response efforts to the Russia probe from the day-to-day work of the administration, acknowledging openly that President Donald Trump had hired an outside attorney to handle the swirling controversy.

Asked at an off-camera briefing for reaction to upcoming congressional testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey, press secretary Sean Spicer referred questions for the first time to the newly named outside lawyer.

“We are focused on the President’s agenda,” Spicer said. “Going forward, all questions on these matters will be referred to outside counsel Marc Kasowitz.”

Trump hired Kasowitz last week to lead a legal team focused on steering the President through the various investigations into Russia’s election meddling. The probes have come increasingly close to Trump’s inner circle, with investigators requesting documents from Trump’s campaign associates and the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner under scrutiny for his contacts with Russian officials.

Trump has repeatedly and angrily insisted that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, and has decried reports about the matter as false.

Aside from Kasowitz, the White House is considering bringing on old campaign hands to help manage the fallout. Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is bring considered to play a role, and has been spotted at the White House on several occasions over the past week.

In creating a separate entity to handle the Russia fallout, the White House hopes existing staffers can return their focus to executing the President’s agenda, which has largely stalled as aides and advisers work to respond to the Russia story.

Trump has yet to sign a major piece of legislation, and he is currently facing a series of major decisions, including withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, increasing troops in Afghanistan and naming a new FBI director.

Daily White House briefings have been dominated by questions about Russia, and Trump’s advisers feared the controversy could seep into Trump’s foreign trip if he held a news conference. By referring questions to outside lawyers, aides hope the focus can return to Trump’s agenda.

But that would also require a concerted effort by the President himself to avoid discussing the matter, something he hasn’t demonstrated a willingness to do, at least on Twitter.

Trump raised the issue again Wednesday, writing that Democrats had “excoriated (former campaign adviser) Carter Page about Russia, don’t want him to testify.”

“He blows away their case against him & now wants to clear his name by showing ‘the false or misleading testimony by James Comey, John Brennan … ‘ Witch Hunt!” Trump wrote.