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After Missteps, Rumors Of Massive White House Shakeup

Feb 13, 2017
Originally published on February 13, 2017 7:39 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It has been a fast-paced and rocky start for the Trump White House. There have been reports of infighting and even talk of a possible staff shakeup after just three weeks. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the White House, and she joins me now. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the national security adviser, Michael Flynn. In December before Trump became president, Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador. There are reports that they discussed the sanctions President Obama put in place against Russia. What's the latest on that? Is Flynt on the outs, and why is it such a problem that he might have talked about those sanctions?

LIASSON: Well, it's a problem for a couple of reasons. First of all, there are transcripts of these calls, as Flynn himself should certainly know as a former intelligence official. Every Russian ambassador has their calls surveilled. But it's important because Flynn told Vice President - then Vice President-elect Pence that he didn't discuss sanctions with Russia. Then Pence went on television and said that. Now Flynn says he can't be a hundred percent certain he didn't discuss sanctions, which means he either misled or lied to the vice president.

Now, only one person's opinion matters here in terms of Flynn's tenure, which is President Donald Trump. Trump said over the weekend he didn't know about these reports about Flynn. He certainly knows about them by now. And the other important thing is that over the weekend, no White House official defended Flynn. When asked multiple times on television, Stephen Miller, the domestic policy aide, refused to say whether Donald Trump still had confidence in him.

SIEGEL: Well, the president fielded a couple of questions today in a news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Did he express this question?

LIASSON: No, he chose - this is what's known as a two and two press conference. Each leader gets to call on two reporters. Donald Trump chose two friendly reporters, one from The Daily Caller, one from Sinclair Broadcasting. Neither of them asked about this. Does this matter? Certainly Sean Spicer will get a lot of questions about it tomorrow when he briefs.

But I think that if President Trump stands next to world leaders who are willing to take tough questions from their press corps, like Theresa May or Shinzo Abe or Justin Trudeau did today, he does run the risk over time of looking weak.

SIEGEL: Now, over the weekend, Mara, guests at Trump's resort in Florida say that the president was discussing national security in the dining room. What...

LIASSON: It's really extraordinary. After North Korea launched a missile, the Japanese ambassador at the time happened to be with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Florida, and an impromptu meeting ensued where documents were reviewed in clear view of other guests. Cell phone flashlights were used. Guests took pictures of this, posted it on Facebook. We don't know if the documents were classified or whether their - the cell phone cameras could have been used as listening devices.

But we do know that no one told Donald Trump that he should get up and go to a secure room, if there is such a thing at Mar-a-Lago. We don't - it raised questions from national security experts of whether Mar-a-Lago has been infiltrated - maybe some of the members or the staff. It really paints a picture of a White House where no one is in charge other than Donald Trump, and no one can tell him what to do.

SIEGEL: I have images of the TV show "Get Smart" and the cone of silence descending.

LIASSON: (Laugher) There wasn't one then.

SIEGEL: This would be the exact opposite.

LIASSON: Yeah, that's right.

SIEGEL: This is important, you think?

LIASSON: I don't know if this is important, but we're getting a lot of clues about this administration. This administration is less than one month old. Tremendous amounts of rumors are flying, lots and lots of leaks, questions about staff turmoil. We've had the rollouts of the executive orders that have been chaotic, Cabinet secretaries not knowing what was happening until it was actually happening on television before them.

The president's approval rating according to Gallup is now at 40 percent. That's a historic low. Does that mean he can't get his agenda through Congress - probably not as long as it's the agenda that the Republicans in Congress want. But on national security and foreign policy where the president - that is really the president's purview - there have been a lot of eye rolls, a lot of complaints from other Republicans and other agencies that deal with national security. And it does matter because...

SIEGEL: Yep.

LIASSON: ...In foreign policy, the president needs to send clear signals to our allies and to our enemies.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.