The star of ‘Presidential Apprentice’ has always been obsessed with his public relations management, but it has always been a closely-held operation. Rather than hire professionals, Donald Trump used to call reporters under an assumed name to talk about himself in the third person.
This trait became even more pronounced during the 2016 campaign, when Trump developed the worst relationship to the press of any candidate in the modern era, and it has continued in office.
Just consider the way Trump has mishandled the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Not only did he actually think that Democrats would thank him, he never expected the firestorm that ensued. “The fallout seemed to take the White House by surprise,” Josh Dawsey reports at POLITICO.
Trump made a round of calls around 5 p.m., asking for support from senators. White House officials believed it would be a “win-win” because Republicans and Democrats alike had had problems with the FBI director, one person briefed on the administration’s deliberations said.
Instead, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told him he was making a big mistake — and Trump seemed “taken aback,” according to a person familiar with the call.
Following his authoritarian instincts, Trump fired Comey without consulting anyone first and made no effort to prepare his communications staff for the resulting onslaught of questions:
By Tuesday evening, the president was watching the coverage of his decision and frustrated no one was on TV defending him, a White House official said. He wanted surrogates out there beating the drum.
Instead, advisers were attacking one another for not realizing the gravity of the situation as events blew up. “How are you not defending your position for three solid hours on TV?” the White House aide asked.
Two White House officials said there was little communications strategy in handling the firing, and that staffers were given talking points late Tuesday for hastily arranged media appearances. Aides soon circulated previous quotes from Schumer hitting Comey. After Schumer called for a special prosecutor, the White House huddled in press secretary Sean Spicer’s office to devise a strategy and sent “fresh faces” to TV, one White House official said.
As Trump’s regular press secretary hid behind a hedge, Sarah Huckabee Sanders became one of those “fresh faces” — and promptly walked right into a disaster this morning on MSNBC when she tried to lie about what Joe Scarborough had previously said right in his face. “You’re not actually telling the truth right now,” co-host Mika Brzezinski said.
While the rest of us wonder at the Baghdad Bob-like nature of such moments, we must bear in mind that this is exactly what the president has always wanted.
During the campaign, Trump never hired a real press team. If newspapers or TV shows said something he didn’t want to hear, Trump would get angry and tweet about it rather than have competent staff “work the refs.” He would go off-script every time bad news hit. According to POLITICO, Trump spent the entire last week screaming at the television over coverage of his Russian influence scandal because nothing has changed.
In 2016, surrogates were never free to spin their own material but had to stick to the talking points Trump wanted them to use. It was a circus of dysfunction with a control freak as ringmaster. There was no office working up talking points every day, distributing information and making sure everyone was on the same page.
As a result, his messaging was a total mess, with high turnover and chaos, causing one anonymous staffer to moan that “These are things that will defeat [us].” Although he did win the Electoral College, these traits are still defeating Trump today.
The people he chooses to represent him look like fools, blithering morons, and callow spinners, but they can expect to be rewarded for their loyalty no matter what the rest of us think of them.
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