President gets no questions about national security adviser at press conference with Justin Trudeau, as Reince Preibus and Sean Spicer also said to be on notice
Donald Trump sidestepped questions over a rumoured purge of senior White House staff, including a national security adviser facing allegations of lying, during a brief press conference alongside his Canadian counterpart on Monday.
Standing beside Justin Trudeau, Trump took only two questions from American media: the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, which reportedly struck a dealfor better coverage with his election campaign last year, and the rightwing website the Daily Caller.
Neither asked about the controversy swirling around Michael Flynn, despite leading Democrats calling for the national security adviser to be fired over claims that he lied about secret communications with Russia. White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer are also subjects of whispering campaigns less than a month into the new administration.
By contrast, Stephen Miller, senior policy adviser, is seemingly in the ascendent after being singled out for praise by the president on Twitter after aggressive TV performances on Sunday in which he said the powers of the president to protect the US “will not be questioned”, fuelling perceptions that Trump combines the power and whimsy of a monarch, favouring some courtiers with patronage while demoting those who cause offence.
Trump’s reluctance to publicly back Flynn, a fierce champion on the stump during the election campaign, has been striking. White House officials have been reviewing the former general’s contacts with Russia before Trump took office and whether he discussed the possibility of lifting US sanctions on the country. This could potentially be in violation of a law banning private citizens from engaging in foreign policy.
Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had initially denied discussing sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. Vice-President Mike Pence went before TV cameras to repeat the denial and defend Flynn.
But last week, when reports suggested that sanctions may indeed have been discussed, Flynn conceded that he could not remember with 100% certainty. Pence is said to be troubled by the possibility that he was misled. Flynn has apologised to Pence and others over the incident, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The controversy comes as the White House deals with national security problems including North Korea’s reported ballistic missile launch, new tensions with Iranand a military raid in Yemen that did not go to plan. But the national security council is alleged to be in disarray as it adapts to Trump’s inexperience and Twitter habit.
Trump made reference to North Korea during Monday’s press conference, promising: “We will deal with that very strongly.”
Trump, who spent the weekend at his private club in Florida with Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe – where questions were raised over his handling of classified information after social media posts showed him and Abe sitting with aides in a public dining room at the Mar-a-Lago estate following North Korea’s missile test – has yet to comment on Flynn’s status, beyond saying on Friday he would “look into” the reports of his contacts with Kislyak, which he claimed not to have been aware of.
But Miller and other aides have repeatedly declined to defend the national security adviser over the specific issue, offering only general platitudes about Flynn’s service to the country.
Democrats, eager to probe Trump’s alleged links to Russia, which intelligence agencies concluded worked to damage his election rival Hillary Clinton, have seized on the alleged mendacity and called for Flynn’s dismissal. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, said on Monday: “Michael Flynn’s conduct was alarming enough before his secret communications with the Russians were exposed. Now, we have a national security adviser who cannot be trusted not to put Putin before America … National security demands that General Flynn be fired immediately.”
Democratic senator Chris Coons told MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “If I were president, I would dismiss the national security adviser who had lied to the vice-president and who was on record as having lied to me.”
Politico reported that Trump has told several people that he is “particularly displeased” with Flynn and has “occasionally expressed unhappiness” to Spicer about his handling of the daily press briefing. Spicer has made false claims, displayed a short temper and become a subject of ridicule on the TV comedy show Saturday Night Live.
Priebus could also be in jeopardy after being the subject of some very public criticism, especially over the chaotic implementation of an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Chris Ruddy, chief executive of the conservative media organisation Newsmax and a Trump confidante, hinted that Trump might remove him, the New York Times reported. “He doesn’t waste a lot of time,” Ruddy said of Trump. “If he thinks somebody is not performing, he moves pretty quickly.”
In a separate interview with the Washington Post, Ruddy said: “It’s my view that Reince is the problem. I think on paper Reince looked good as the chief of staff – and Donald trusted him – but it’s pretty clear the guy is in way over his head.
“He’s not knowledgeable of how federal agencies work, how the communications operations work. He botched this whole immigration rollout. This should’ve been a win for Donald, not two or three weeks of negative publicity.’”
By contrast, Miller, 31, one of the chief architects of the immigration order – which has been blocked by the courts – seems stronger than ever after aggressively defending it during a round of high-profile TV interviews.
“We have a judiciary that has taken far too much power and become in many cases a supreme branch of government,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation. “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
The comments appalled governance watchdogs and Democrats. Coons, a senator for Delaware, said of Miller: “That is a simply stunning statement. The idea that a senior adviser to the president would go on camera and say the president’s authority will not be questioned shows both a striking lack of understanding of the structure of our government, and a complete lack of respect for judicial independence.”
But in sharp contrast to his silence over Flynn, Trump tweeted a herogram to Miller: “Congratulations Stephen Miller- on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!”
Despite a recent series of missteps, White House counsel Kellyanne Conway is thought to be safe, and potentially even a contender to replace Priebus as chief of staff.
More than half of Trump’s cabinet could be in place by the end of this week. His pick for treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was on course for confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate on Monday evening. But his nominee for labour secretary, food chief executive Andrew Puzder,could face stiff opposition on Thursday.
Trudeau is the 45-year-old liberal prime minister neighbouring Canada, which has welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees. Asked at the press conference if he was confident that America’s border with Canada is secure, Trump admitted “you can never be totally confident”, but added: “I already see it happening”, and work is under way to remove “hardened criminals”.
“I think in the end everyone is going to be extremely happy and a lot of people are happy right now,” he said.
The odd couple attended a meeting with female business leaders along with Trump’s daughter Ivanka. The president said: “The full power of women can do better than anybody else. We know that.”