Jane Sherburne, a lawyer specializing in crisis management, was special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997.
Scandal management is a rarified but essential craft — especially in the White House. For a White House in the crucible of a scandal, or several, the stakes could not be higher or the dynamics more complex. As a veteran of scandal management in a past White House, handling Whitewater and associated ethics issues during the Clinton presidency, let me offer some nonpartisan advice to my Trump-era successors about navigating a crisis.
First, designate a special White House counsel as the scandal manager. The job demands a seasoned lawyer — someone with an independent reputation for integrity, who can handle the high-wire act of managing a crisis at the intersection of high-stakes legal issues, intense political pressure and relentless press scrutiny. Consolidating the White House defense under the management of a single person — one empowered to establish a team of professionals with a range of competencies (press, congressional relations, legal) — creates the capacity to respond with a strategy that is implemented uniformly. As an added benefit, everyone else can settle down and get back to work.
Second, put a process in place to ensure consistent and accurate communication about the facts. It should be the job of the special counsel to gather the facts and equip the president and White House staff to speak with authority and consistency. Anyone talking to the press or interacting with Congress should be armed with enough information to respond with consistent message points. Giving White House staff facts and guidance reduces freelancing and can minimize the perception of shifting positions.
Executing this approach successfully requires discipline, including — and perhaps especially — from the president. Bad things happen when key players stray from the message or have their own communications with the press or Congress that haven’t been coordinated with the special counsel. Inaccurate information may be released that later needs to be explained or corrected, or a public statement may miss an important nuance that creates a legal issue or opens a new line of inquiry. Giving an unequivocal answer (e.g., “No. No. Next question.”) before all the facts are known or fully understood can be disastrous. Loss of discipline deepens the crisis.
Third, develop the capacity to respond to subpoenas and requests for information generated by prosecutors and congressional investigators. Republican congressional leaders have been quick to proclaim that the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel in the Russia probe necessarily shuts down congressional inquiries. This is a lame excuse. In the Clinton administration, both the House and Senate ran active investigations concurrently with Kenneth Starr’s independent-counsel inquiry, each issuing subpoenas to the White House covering similar (but never the same) information and compelling testimony from witnesses who testified on the same subjects in all three investigations. The burden is staggering and requires a professional White House operation to ensure it is managed appropriately.
Fourth, take the initiative to disclose bad facts. Especially with an investigation in full swing and a steady stream of leaks, it is prudent to assume that bad facts always come out. Therefore, it is wise for the White House to release bad facts as soon as they are sufficiently understood, before they are leaked or made public by investigators. If there is an explanation or context that could blunt their impact, it is more likely to resonate at the outset, with the White House managing the release, than be heard in the din of a defensive reaction to their release — often with an unfairly negative spin — from another source.
Fifth, avoid stonewalling subpoenas and other requests for information. Efforts to resist will create the impression of a coverup and are likely to fail anyway. Negotiate document production that satisfies the clamor before the pressure builds. This should be less of an issue this go-round, in which a Republican-controlled Congress has limited interest in disabling the administration.
Sixth, establish a protocol for communicating with the personal counsel of White House officials caught up in the probe, including the president’s team of private lawyers who protect him from personal liability. Although interests may diverge — those of individuals may be in conflict with the interests of the presidency (an individual may invoke Fifth Amendment protections when the White House may prefer full cooperation, for instance) — maintaining good communication is essential to avoid surprises. And surprises are the enemy of message and effectiveness.
Finally, tell the truth. A few months into my White House tenure, I asked a departing colleague, who had been in the mix of ethics issues that arose during Bill Clinton’s first year in office, what advice he had for me. “Tell the truth,” he said. That seemed simple enough. Yet in the thick of a crisis, the desire to wish away bad facts — especially if their revelation could undermine or even destroy a presidency — sometimes makes the calculation feel much more complex. But being tempted to evade the truth, or to shade it, will only end up creating more of a mess for a White House already in trouble.