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Working In The White House During An Investigation


Not a news cycle goes by without a new report about the firing of James Comey or about Michael Flynn - who are probably not at the same party this weekend - or what President Trump told the Russians or the Russians told each other or investigations into ties between the president and Russia. Robert Mueller has been named as special counsel. There are also inquiries in the House and Senate. Special investigations can last years, put White House staff under intense scrutiny, make a lot of news and take a lot of time and attention. Don Baer joins us. He was the communications director for President Bill Clinton, just as the Whitewater investigations got underway, and that led to perjury and obstruction of justice charges against the president for lying about his relationship with a White House intern. Mr. Baer, thanks so much for being with us.

DON BAER: Thank you, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: Is it difficult for a president and the White House staff to get much done in the middle of what people consider a scandal?

BAER: Well, it is. And let me just make one quick correction. When I started, and when the Whitewater investigations began, I had just started as the chief speechwriter to the president. And then, in the course of that, became the communications director. But it all sort of is in the mix of things. Of course, it can be difficult. It can - there can be a lot of distractions. It's especially difficult when something like this happens as early in an administration as this has happened. You know, the Whitewater investigation, the special prosecutor, did not begin until the second year of the Clinton presidency. This is now started within the first few months of the Trump presidency. And the routines of action and of moving forward with things have not been set. And we know that this White House has had difficulty anyway because so many people have come in to the government who have never worked in politics and government before. So it can really derail things very quickly.

SIMON: And how much just simple time and attention does it take, I mean, once subpoenas start flying and people have to give depositions and that sort of thing?

BAER: Well, again, no one ever sees - people don't realize how much activity and attention has to go into everything that a White House and a president does. Every speech, every event, every briefing, certainly every decision - there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people who are behind every one of those things. And there need to be systems in place that help to move all of that forward. When you begin to have people - especially senior people, which seems to be the case in this White House - who have to be paying attention to depositions, to document requests, to just thinking, strategizing what should be said and when should it be said, it really can take people's eyes off the ball.

In the Clinton administration, the Clinton White House, this started from the top. President Clinton was determined that we would stay focused on doing the people's business when we were there. And, really, a lot of the activity related to the investigations was taken offline, and other people dealt with it. In my role as chief speechwriter and White House communications director, I almost never dealt with any of those kinds of issues because there were others who were focused and had their attention on all of that. And we were really determined to stay focused on moving the agenda forward. And the president and his chiefs of staff and everyone who worked with him really was very, very focused on that.

SIMON: And in the half-minute we have left, Mr. Baer, I understand you may not be inclined to offer any advice to the Trump White House, but do you have any anyway?

BAER: Well, I'm not inclined, but I do think that it's...

SIMON: But for the good of the American people.

BAER: Exactly. It's important to focus in on what you came there to do and to try to get as much of your staff to pay attention to that and not have them distracted by all of this. And I think that has to start with the president, who has to say to the people who work for him, we're going to do that which we came here to do.

SIMON: Don Baer was White House communications director under President Clinton, now CEO of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller. Thanks so much for being with us.

BAER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.