Trump’s unprecedented hands-on messaging carries risks
NEW YORK — For the third time in six months, President Donald Trump is on the hunt for a new communications director. But in practice, the job is filled.
It’s Trump who’s the White House’s leading expert and the final word on what and how he communicates with the public. Despite decrying most negative media coverage as “fake news” and personally insulting members of the media, he has inserted himself into the White House’s press operations in an unprecedented fashion for a president.
Trump has dictated news releases and pushed those who speak for him to bend the facts to bolster his claims. He has ignored the advice of his legal team and thrown out carefully planned legislative strategies with a single 140-character tweet.
His direct, hands-on style helped him win the White House and still thrills his supporters. It also, however, poses increasing political and potentially legal risks. The clearest example is his involvement in crafting a statement for son Donald Jr. about a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer. That declaration was quickly proven erroneous and raised questions about whether the president was trying to cover for his son.
Trump has struggled to find a communications adviser that meets his approval.
His first, Mike Dubke, stayed behind the scenes and never clicked with Trump, leaving after three months. Then Sean Spicer, Trump’s oft-beleaguered press secretary, took on the communications director job as well. He resigned both posts last month when Trump brought in hard-charging New York financier Anthony Scaramucci. Scaramucci lasted only 11 days before being fired in the aftermath of an expletive-filled interview.
A fourth candidate for the post, campaign spokesman Jason Miller, was named to the job during the transition but turned it down days later, citing a need to spend time with his family.
This past week, as White House staffers readied a statement accompanying Trump’s signature on legislation approving toughened sanctions on Russia — a bill Trump criticized — word came down that the president wanted to add some off-topic language into the statement. That’s according to two officials familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly talk about internal discussions.
“I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars,” the new section read. “That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As president, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
That personal and boastful rhetoric is a far cry from the formal language normally found in presidential statements. It also appeared aimed at angering the same lawmakers he will need if he wants to pass any major legislation.
“All presidents are their own best messengers,” said Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush. Fleischer said that Bush, too, would at times get involved with the White House press shop.
Fleischer noted there was always a safety net of advisers at work. That does not appear to exist around the current president — particular around his Twitter account.
“The lesson for this president is that it’s perfectly fine to be involved and to, at times, go around the mainstream media with Twitter,” Fleischer said. “But he needs to tweet smarter.”
Corralling the president’s impulses is a challenge that now falls to new White House chief of staff John Kelly, a four-star Marine general tasked with straightening out an unruly West Wing. But many Trump allies don’t believe he’ll alter his ways.
“The reality is President Trump is sitting in the Oval Office,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign staffer. “And before that, he was a mogul with a business that he spanned continents. He did it his way. He’s not going to change. It got him where he and it will keep him where he is.”
Trump has long considered himself his own best spokesman and cares deeply about his public perception.
While a budding real estate magnate in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, he was known to call reporters to plant anonymously sourced scoops about himself. He vaulted to national stardom with “The Apprentice” and micromanaged aspects of his appearances, including his hair and lighting.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump was known to obsess over single images in a commercial or the font for an ad.
As president, he frequently has raged about his communications staff, blaming them for White House’s stumbles while almost never taking responsibility himself.
An avid consumer of cable news, Trump scolds surrogates when he thinks they are not adequately defending him on television. His frequently shifting positions also challenge his staffers, who have grown to be fearful of answering basic questions about the president’s beliefs for fear of later being contradicted, according to more than a half dozen White House officials and outside advisers speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
And the president has pushed staff to defend untruths, including when he ordered Spicer, in Spicer’s first White House briefing, to claim that the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd was larger than his predecessor’s, according to three White House officials and outside advisers familiar with the encounter.
More untruths have followed. In March, Trump tweeted without evidence that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. And soon after firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump tweeted a warning that Comey had better hope there were no tapes of their White House conversations. There weren’t.
Another statement has received bipartisan condemnation and could face scrutiny from investigators probing possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
As news broke last month that Trump Jr. had met with Russians in June 2016, the president’s eldest son released a statement — which was in part crafted on Air Force One by the president and a small group of aides while flying home from a summit in Europe — that claimed the meeting was about adoptions. But within days, Trump Jr. had to revise his story several times before eventually acknowledging that he was trying to procure damaging, Russia-produced information about Hillary Clinton.
“This was a bad decision by the president,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina). “When you get caught in a lie about one thing, it makes it hard to just say let the other stuff go.”
Press secretary Sarah Sanders said last week that Trump “weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.