WHITE HOUSE - The White House spokesman, during a truncated, off-camera briefing Wednesday, brushed aside a question about a report that fired FBI Director James Comey plans to testify publicly that President Donald Trump pressured him to end an investigation into a top Trump aide's ties to Russia.
"We are focused on the president's agenda," White House press secretary Sean Spicer answered. "Going forward, all questions on these matters will be referred to outside counsel Marc Kasowitz."
The New York City litigator was retained by Trump last week to represent the president in all matters concerning the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Deferring all questions on an investigative matter is not unprecedented. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, spokesman Mike McCurry eventually did not answer questions about campaign finance investigations and other legal issues. Special counsel Lanny Davis handled those.
For Trump and Spicer in the age of digital and social media, this “is not an issue that can be avoided by having your lawyer do the talking,” Mark Hass, Arizona State University Professor of Practice in Strategic Communications, told VOA.
“I predict this won’t last long. You can’t have the presidential spokesman saying ‘ask our lawyer’ about Russia, when the president himself will be tweeting on the topic — and you know he will be,” added Hass, a veteran journalist who then became president and chief executive officer of the Edelman public relations agency.
CNN on Wednesday reported that Comey will tell the Senate Intelligence Committee, as soon as next week, that Trump urged him to drop his ongoing investigation into Michael Flynn, whom the president fired as his national security adviser.
Earlier in the day, the president on Twitter used the term "Witch Hunt" to characterize congressional investigations into his 2016 campaign's links to Russia, blaming opposition Democrats for allegedly blocking the testimony of another former aide, Carter Page, looking to clear his name.
During the daily White House briefing, Spicer also was asked about mysterious Wednesday morning tweets on the president's @realDonaldTrump account referring to "covfefe."
Shortly after midnight, Trump tweeted, "Despite the constant negative press covfefe"
The tweet, with the mystery word not found in any dictionary, stayed online for six hours before being deleted. Then, just after 6 a.m., the president tweeted: "Who can figure out the true meaning of covfefe' ? Enjoy!"
Who can figure out the true meaning of "covfefe" ??? Enjoy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2017
That one stayed up, unleashing another round of social media confusion.
Asked about the cryptic message, Spicer replied, "The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant."
Pressed for clarification, the press secretary did not respond, much to the chagrin of a befuddled press corps.
The "covfefe" affair could be a diversionary tactic, said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the college of information and communications at the University of South Carolina.
"We are so easily distracted by the little things, if it is a little thing," Bierbauer, a former president of the White House Correspondents' Association, told VOA. "I'm theorizing that Trump meant to say 'kerfuffle' and knew neither how to spell or pronounce it."
Cameras were not permitted to record Spicer's comments, as the White House apparently moves to reduce the number of contentious televised briefings.
Press briefing rules
The administration alternatively used the terms "gaggle" and "pen and pad session" for Wednesday's briefing, saying audio could be recorded but could not be aired live or streamed.
In past decades, extended on-camera White House press briefings were a rarity.
"That used to be the rule, with on-camera being the exception," recalled Bierbauer, who noted that during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush it was common for cameras only to be permitted to videotape the top five minutes of the briefings.
"In the Reagan days, if spokesman Larry Speakes didn't like something we did, he declared us out of business. We ignored him," said Bierbauer, a former CNN correspondent.
Despite the ground rule imposed Wednesday, the 11-minute briefing was aired live by some cable networks, in which one-fourth of the session was consumed by Spicer reading prepared announcements.
As the press secretary abruptly walked off the podium, one frustrated reporter exclaimed, "How short are these going to be?"
Bierbauer noted: "There is no convention as to how long a briefing should last, nor that it should start on time. Everything at the White House runs on White House time."