How to govern under legal cloud? A one-word strategy emerges.

On Friday, President Trump appeared to confirm that he personally is under investigation. Clinton White House veterans share how they dealt with ongoing legal scrutiny.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
President Clinton makes a statement from the Rose Garden at The White House in Washington following his acquittal of both articles of impeachment by the Senate on Feb. 12, 1999.

Ask veterans of the Clinton White House how they managed to do their job every day, despite the perpetual controversies, and one word comes up over and over again: “compartmentalize.”

In other words, put your head down and focus on your work. Don’t become consumed by negative headlines. And keep your eye on the prize: that you are working for a cause you believe in.

“It’s very difficult, because no matter what, you walk into an office to discuss something, and they want to discuss the scandal, even as an ally,” says Patrick Griffin, who ran legislative affairs for former President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1996. “But it doesn’t give you a chance to advance any policy program that you have.”

Two decades later, the same advice applies to a Trump White House struggling to enact major legislation amid intensifying FBI and congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collaboration by Trump associates.

On Friday, President Trump appeared to confirm that he personally is under investigation, following news reports this week that he faces scrutiny over whether he obstructed justice on the Russia matter.

“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt," Trump tweeted.

To be sure, Messrs. Trump and Clinton are different men with dramatically different backgrounds upon entering the presidency. Clinton had years of governing experience and leadership in national Democratic organizations long before running for president. Trump made the leap from business and entertainment directly to the Oval Office, and the learning curve has been steep.

In addition, Clinton had years in the White House under seemingly constant but not politically dire controversy before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, which led to his impeachment for lying under oath.

Trump took office amid much more intense political polarization, and an ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the election – a probe that quickly ensnared current and past advisers, and now himself.

Then there’s Twitter. Clinton didn’t face the temptation of blasting out near-daily messages directly to the American people. Trump seems to revel in it, despite the reported urgings of staff and lawyers to lay off. And the news media can’t resist covering every intemperate tweet.

It has become an endless cycle of “call and response” that is drowning out the more mundane, but vital, business of governing.

Soldiering on

Despite reports of a White House in “chaos,” the understaffed Trump team is soldiering on – organizing events, briefings, travel, roundtable discussions with the president, and “theme weeks” aimed at highlighting policy goals.

Last week was “infrastructure week,” but the congressional hearing of fired FBI Director James Comey on the Russia investigation dominated coverage. House passage of the CHOICE Act, which would remove key aspects of the Dodd-Frank banking reform law, was barely noticed.

This week, testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (more Russia) and the shooting of the No. 3 House Republican and three others at a baseball practice were the week’s big news. (A fifth individual sustained a non-gunshot injury.)

Next week, Trump will travel to Iowa for a campaign rally, a chance to absorb the energy and goodwill of his supporters. But back in Washington, the Russia probe presents a constant threat of distraction – both in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

“There’s no doubt that keeping members [of Congress] focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda and detracts somewhat from what we’re trying to deliver to the American people,” Marc Short, Trump’s legislative affairs director, told reporters last week.

Trump, top adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and now Vice President Mike Pence have all “lawyered up.” For all, retaining outside counsel does not imply guilt, but rather allows administration officials to focus on their jobs, and policy, and leave legal matters to a professional. 

At the daily White House press briefing Thursday, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s most common response was a variation on a theme: “Please reach out to the president’s outside counsel.”

Working under the cloud of impeachment

Maria Echaveste, deputy chief of staff during Clinton’s second term, recalls being asked how she could focus on work under the cloud of her boss’s impeachment.

"I was like, ‘Because the work I’m doing actually matters in real people’s lives,’ ” whether it was an initiative to help middle-school and high-school students or delivering hurricane relief, she says.

“That’s how you frame it in your head,” she adds. “That allows you to come into work and ignore that [other] stuff and say, ‘Well, at least this part matters, so I’m working on that.’ ”

Bruce Reed, who served all eight years under Clinton as a top policy adviser, agrees that “compartmentalizing” helped. And there was something else.

In contrast to Trump, whose average job approval rating sits at 40 percent, Clinton enjoyed job approvals above 60 percent during impeachment, in late 1998.

“It makes an enormous difference when the country is behind you,” Mr. Reed says.

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