Trump Has a Communication Problem
White House struggles to manage message, sources say president weighing major shake-ups
President Donald Trump’s latest threat — that he will cancel daily press briefings led by press secretary Sean Spicer — is a sign changes may be on the way in the West Wing.
It’s also a sign there is frustration in the Oval Office that the president’s communications team cannot figure out how to adapt traditional messaging to a very non-traditional president.
“Trump is a brilliant communicator. And an awful communications strategist.”
“He is an unconventional president who is an excellent communicator himself,” said Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to the president, speaking to LifeZette on Sunday. “He leverages different opportunities to communicate with the public through social media and major television and print interviews.”
One of those opportunities is Twitter. No president has ever used non-traditional media as Trump has. But must he make occasional proclamations on Twitter — like the one in which he threatened to shut down press briefings?
Trump’s reported unhappiness with his communications staff began with his Tuesday firing of FBI Director James Comey.
But another senior aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told LifeZette that talk of press office firings is typical media prognostication: It's just the "19th or 20th iteration" of palace-intrigue stories. The aide said when Justice Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court in early April, the media instead focused on whether top aide Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, chief of staff, would be terminated.
But the Comey firing was a different storm. After the sudden and jolting firing of Comey, about 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, reports began flowing that Trump was unhappy with his communications team. Changes could be made, the media reported. CNN and The New York Times suggested Sarah Huckabee Sanders could replace press secretary Sean Spicer.
A source close to the White House inner circle said Huckabee Sanders was indeed being "auditioned" when she did her first May 5 on-camera conference. Top White House officials scoff at the speculation.
Trump was responsible for a lot of the "media fallout" problems, according to some conservative observers. It was ironic — Trump became even more famous than he already was in 2005 by looking at people, straight in the eye, and saying, "You're fired." That line made him a reality-TV star. People assumed Trump was good at firing people.
But the rollout of the termination of the eccentric and egocentric Mr. Comey — not the actual firing — caused a storm of criticism.
"Trump is terrible at firing people!" wrote Gail Collins, a caustic Trump critic at the liberal New York Times.
Yet Trump is not terrible at taking action. He is a decisive person and does not tolerate disloyalty or self-serving public servants. All of that got lost in the shuffle when Trump apparently didn't give his staff or the press enough time to digest what happened, or plan a response to the inevitable firestorm.
It was, in many ways, a sign that Trump has not quite adapted to the messaging strategies needed for the White House. The press, in turn, has not adapted to him. At this point, many members of the press corps still do not fully accept Trump as chief executive. Trump is still disrespectfully derided, much as when he was a presidential candidate, one senior aide said.
What is happening is that the traditional mechanics of the White House press office and the White House press corps have struggled to adapt to a take-action, fire-off-tweets, flip-the-script president, a man Conway called a Washington "disrupter."
Indeed, by the looks of his Reaganesque Cabinet, Trump appears to be genuinely trying to keep his promises. Yet every week or two, he is weighed down by media firestorms.
To quell the storms, Trump has floated the idea of canceling the daily press briefing, likely a bad idea that would consume weeks of his time to justify. Trump told Fox News' Judge Jeanine Pirro that he believes Sean Spicer is getting so beaten up, the daily press briefing — which the press and the public has come to rely on — could be cut, replaced by handouts of written statements.
Yet the "statement strategy" is exactly what Trump tried on Tuesday night — issuing an emailed statement that slowly trickled out to various outlets. Then the breaking-news alerts and harried commentary began.
Trump seemed stunned. The president perceived correctly he was getting pounded on cable and network TV news. When it was later learned some of the talking points about Comey's firing were wrong, Trump doubled down on his idea to end briefings, blaming both the media and his staff.
"As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!" Trump tweeted out.
Trump could be at heart of the problem, some conservatives said.
"Trump is a brilliant communicator. And an awful communications strategist," said Andrew Malcolm, a national political columnist for McClatchy and a veteran right-leaning journalist who has worked as a bureau chief for The New York Times. "He gives his media team an hour's notice on a major story like Comey, then complains about poor results."
Trump, Malcolm believes, is stepping on his own strength.
"He is refreshingly blunt," Malcolm told LifeZette. "And it's delicious to see (liberals') blood pressure soar. But the poor overall presentation confounds the 58 percent who don't support him, but might support him making the real changes he promised."
Trump supporters defend Spicer
Trump's explanation of the Comey firing — as well as his subsequent tweets that he might have embarrassing recordings of Comey — caused his agenda to grind to a halt.
Rumors that Spicer could be the first of those demoted, fired, or switched around have rattled Trump supporters. Spicer has gained a following since taking the secretary's podium on January 21. Some Trump supporters said the president needs to realize he can be tough to manage. They also said Trump and his staff have been too kind to the predominantly liberal mainstream media.
"Sean Spicer shouldn't be fired," said Adriana Cohen, a columnist for the Boston Herald. "Trump should stop giving rambling interviews to hostile media. It's a (public relations) 'land mine' waiting to happen."
And Spicer seems to connect to red states. At Trump's rallies since becoming president, Spicer is often besieged by Republicans seeking "selfies."
"I like him," said a Republican woman from Texas, speaking to LifeZette. "I watch him every day, he is fair in reporting the messages very clearly and truthfully as he could."
The woman is the kind of person Trump needs for the next elections: She is an Arab Christian, an immigrant from the Middle East — and loves Trump.
"Spicer, like President Trump, hasn't been afraid of the media," said a Republican government employee from Indiana, in a message to LifeZette. "It's refreshing to see conservatism unafraid of the liberal media!"
As for policy, such as wages, illegal immigration, and health care, Trump's tweets and actions arguably took the focus off important happenings. The turmoil has been the cause and will be the subject of even more ink this week: Two other respected conservative columnists with national followings declined to comment to LifeZette, with one saying he was writing about it this week.
The silence on issues didn't go unnoticed by conservatives, as Trump engaged in yet more unnecessary dogfights for the rest of the week, including an ostensible threat made against Comey, warning him against talking to the media.
"More important news of Aetna totally abandoning Obamacare got lost in the noise," said Malcolm. "If the president is unhappy about the coverage results of the firing, maybe as a leader he could re-examine his own actions first before firing others."