President Trump’s “covfefe” moment says it all.
Early Wednesday, the president had tweeted what appeared to be an incomplete thought, ending with a nonsense word: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.”
After his apparent mistake sent the political universe into a day of jokes, Trump turned it into another “look at me" moment, tweeting: “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!”
At a time of turmoil at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – with a press secretary appearing grim-faced and stressed and a communications director having tendered his resignation – “covfefe” showed who’s really in charge of White House communications: Trump himself. His messaging staff is just riding in the chase car.
“Ultimately, the best messenger is the president himself,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday (pre-covfefe).
That suggests a Herculean assignment for those tasked with speaking for the president. Even in the best of times, White House communications is a high-wire act, with scores of aides working to advance the president’s agenda, keep the team “on message,” and wrangle an unruly press corps.
When a major investigation involving a special counsel enters the picture – see presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and now Trump – a new kind of communications strategy is called for: one that walls off questions about investigations from the routine issues of the day.
With Trump, the challenges increase exponentially. He is new to governing, and doesn’t have that muscle memory to fall back on when major distractions encroach. He is understaffed, both in his communications team and throughout his administration. And he is prone to going off-message and undermining his spokespeople, both in media interviews and on Twitter.
News reports have pointed to White House challenges in finding good people willing to fulfill key roles, but there’s another issue: The Trumpian culture is to keep the team small. He ran both his businesses and his presidential campaign that way. In government writ large, holding back on hiring has also furthered the Trumpian goal of “deconstructing the administrative state.”
Then there are the multiple Russia investigations, a story of international intrigue that brings near-daily developments.
“It’s an elaborate running story and every day it builds on itself, everyone finds a new person, a new angle, a new investigation, a new leak,” says Stephen Hess, who advised former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, and is a scholar on governance at the Brookings Institution. “These folks don’t really know how to stop the leaks.”
Mr. Spicer has probably suffered more public humiliation than any White House press secretary in history, from Melissa McCarthy's parodies of him on "Saturday Night Live" to slights at the hands of Trump himself.
Republicans, not surprisingly, have sympathy for Mr. Spicer.
“I don’t think that you need to fire Sean Spicer,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “You need to enlarge the comms shop. Find talent who can come in and are loyal.”
“The news is just moving faster than ever,” says Mr. O’Connell. “And you have a boss who likes to change subjects in a heartbeat. This is a very, very hard job, no matter who you are. But there still needs to be more strategic planning, because the better the strategic planning, the better the execution.”
Even Mike McCurry, one of former President Bill Clinton’s press secretaries, offers a bit of succor for the incumbent.
“The poor guy hasn’t had many breaks,” says Mr. McCurry, now a professor of public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. “And it’s impossible if you have only an audience of one that counts.”
McCurry also offers sympathy for Trump’s decision not to bring along Spicer, a devout Roman Catholic, when he met the pope, says McCurry. “I felt sorry for that. There are very few perks with all the hardship that goes with the job. But you deserve a few of those.”
'You can't go to war with the press'
Speaking more broadly about the job of White House press secretary, McCurry lays out the basic challenge: serving both the president and the press corps.
“You will rarely keep both sides of that equation happy, but you’ve got to have the trust and confidence in both sides of that adversarial relationship in order to make the job work,” he says. “If it gets out of balance, you’re probably not going to be successful.”
McCurry is widely seen as being among the best to have held the job – even as he navigated the Monica Lewinsky scandal. His formula involved creative deflection and a quick wit.
“Telling the truth, slowly” is one of his better-known explanations for how he avoided lying.
“My general rule was, you have to keep people aimed toward the truth and you can’t deliberately deceive,” he says. “But sometimes you have to be artful in the way in which you provide information.”
McCurry doesn’t want to comment on the current White House, but he does offer this general advice: “You can’t belligerently go to war with the press. It’s an adversarial relationship, but it only works if it’s an amicable adversarial relationship.”
Spicer – attacked and attacking
Spicer has had a longstanding relationship with Washington media, going back to his days as a strategist and spokesman for the Republican National Committee and before that, handling communications for the House Republican Conference and public affairs for the US trade representative.
Taking on both the communications and press secretary jobs for Trump has no doubt been the challenge of a lifetime. Trump’s original choice for communications director, Jason Miller, resigned before Inauguration Day over a personal matter, and Spicer did the job until Mike Dubke came in on March 6.
Mr. Dubke stayed largely behind the scenes, and on May 18 offered his resignation. Besides Spicer and his principal deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, senior Trump advisers and Cabinet secretaries have taken turns speaking for the boss on television, and in briefings.
After five weeks in office, Trump gave himself a middling grade – “a C or a C+” – for messaging, even as he awarded himself an A for “what I’ve actually done” and an A+ for effort.
That assessment was seen as a slam on his staff, especially his communications team, and rumors of Spicer’s imminent firing or resignation have become routine. Other reports show Spicer moving to a more behind-the-scenes role while Ms. Sanders would do more on-camera work.
On Tuesday, when Spicer was asked whether Trump was happy with White House messaging, his answer was “yes, but” – and turned the question into an attack on the media.
“I think he's very pleased with the work of his staff,” Spicer said. “I think that he is frustrated, like I am and like so many others, to see stories come out that are patently false; to see narratives that are wrong; to see quote-unquote, ‘fake news.’ ”
When asked for an example, he named an erroneous report about Trump not listening to the simultaneous interpretation during the recent G7 summit in Italy. (When the truth came out, that story was corrected.)
Spicer then ended the briefing abruptly. The next day, he appeared before the press, off camera, for just 12 minutes.
How humor can help
Gone are the days when Trump could pose as his own publicist – as he did in the 1990s, calling reporters as “John Miller” or “John Barron” to discuss his personal life and business prowess.
Now Trump is consumed by the business of the presidency, and even if Spicer thinks Trump is his own best messenger, that’s not realistic on a daily basis. Suggestions that Trump might do away with daily briefings by a spokesperson, and hold a press conference himself every two weeks are also unrealistic, say experts on media-White House relations.
Every day, most questions from the press are predictable, and more efficiently handled in a group setting rather than in individual contacts between the press office and reporters.
Peter Fenn, a veteran Democratic communications strategist, blames Trump for the problems with his press shop.
“This White House communications operation is not organized, is not disciplined, and is not rational,” Mr. Fenn says. “And it starts at the top.”
McCurry credits humor with getting him through his toughest moments as Clinton’s press secretary.
“When I got stuck, humor was the only thing left in your toolbag,” he says. “One time, after the 80th straight question on Monica Lewinsky, I used a line someone else gave me. I said, ‘Look guys, you’ve got me double-parked in the no-comment zone.’ ”
“Everybody laughed. Then we moved on to the next subject. If you don’t have the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it all, then it’s going to be very grim.”