In recent months, it has become a running joke in the Trump White House that the phrase most commonly uttered during press briefings is, “The tweet speaks for itself.” Now, it appears that “I would refer you to outside counsel” is giving the former phrase a run for its money.
The White House is now referring inquiries about the existence, or nonexistence, of recording devices in the Oval Office to President Donald Trump’s personal attorney—thus expanding the purview and portfolio of the embattled president’s outside legal team.
It’s also the latest example of a scandal-exhausted White House looking to get its agenda back on track by outsourcing, to the degree that it can, the public relations slog surrounding politically inconvenient questions to outside attorneys, allies, and advocacy groups.
On Thursday, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred a question about alleged recordings to Marc Kasowitz, the outside counsel handling media inquiries relating to ousted FBI director James Comey, the federal investigation into alleged Russian election meddling, the Trump campaign’s alleged Russian-government ties, and the president’s apparent efforts to hobble the probe.
When asked by The Daily Beast after the White House briefing on Thursday whether all questions about potential recordings—even ones that do not pertain at all to conversations between Trump and Comey—should be directed to Kasowitz, Sanders replied that outside counsel was “probably the best place to start.”
National security attorney Bradley Moss suggested that the rationale behind the White House’s deferring to outside counsel is likely as political as it is legal.
“Presumably they're trying to deflect for as long as possible and avoid addressing the issue,” Moss said in an email. “The only way Kasowitz would have any knowledge on the subject is if he was informed of the existence or non-existence of recordings for evidentiary purposes in the context of preparing a possible defense to obstruction.”
The range of topics covered by the White House’s policy on such inquiries has grown considerably since it began referring all Comey-related questions to Kasowitz two weeks ago.
Trump’s press staff is now deferring to outside counsel on questions ranging from Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into potential obstruction of justice by the president to the identities of the “very bad and conflicted people” called out on the president’s Twitter feed.
It was Trump himself who first raised the prospect of an Oval Office recording device. “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” @realDonaldTrump tweeted just days after sacking Comey early last month, a move that precipitated a torrent of leaks and led to the newly public obstruction investigation.
The day prior to that threatening tweet, The New York Times reported that President Trump had asked Comey to pledge his loyalty during a private White House dinner in January. Comey famously declined to promise “loyalty” for Trump.
Since then, three senior White House officials—Sanders, press secretary Sean Spicer, and counselor Kellyanne Conway—have refused to say whether or not the president actually records conversations in the Oval Office. But before Thursday, Trump’s team had opted for non-answers instead of deferring to the president’s legal team.
Trump pledged during a press conference last week to address the issue soon in public remarks, though the White House has not said when he will do so.
"You're going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer, don't worry,” the president said.
Reporters have continued to press the issue, including through Freedom of Information Act requests for any such possible recordings from the Secret Service, which responded that it had no such recordings in its possession.
“The Secret Service says that they have no recordings of the president’s conversations in the Oval Office,” Sanders was asked on Thursday. “Does that answer the question of whether there are tapes or not?”
“I know this is in reference to the Comey conversations so I would refer you to outside counsel,” Sanders responded, even though the reporter had not mentioned Comey or his conversations with the president. “I believe the President intends to make it clear at some point. But in terms of questions that you’re asking regarding that matter, you’d have to ask outside counsel.”
Kasowitz was brought on in that role in late May as the White House hunkered down for a prolonged legal battle that has ballooned to include some of Trump’s top advisers, including former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
The administration’s legal apparatus grew again on Thursday when Vice President Mike Pence brought on his own outside counsel, Richard Cullen of the firm McGuireWoods, to handle inquiries related to the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Since the White House began referring questions about Comey and the investigation to Kasowitz, the scope of issues covered by its blanket policy on such questions has grown.
The question about “tapes” was hardly the only question that Sanders referred to outside counsel on Thursday.
When a member of the White House press pool asked whether the president “still feels vindicated” by Comey’s Senate testimony last week given reports that he is now personally under federal investigation, the deputy press secretary punted to Team Kasowitz.
One reporter asked who, exactly, Trump was referring to when he tweeted on Thursday that “very bad and conflicted people” are pursuing a “witch hunt” against him—and Sanders quickly sent the reporter outside counsel’s way. She again deferred to outside counsel when asked who Trump felt had “made up a phony collusion," in the words of another one of his Thursday tweets.
And when Sanders was pressed on why the president continues to tweet at all about the federal investigation when his own communications team is refusing to publicly address it, she—yet again—deferred questions about the president’s hate-tweets to outside counsel.
Even on the question of the president’s legal and constitutional powers, Sanders directed reporters to Kasowitz.
“Does the president, Sarah, believe it's in his power to shut down that investigation?” one reporter asked.
“Once again,” she reiterated, “I would refer all questions regarding the investigation to the president's outside counsel.”