The Trump administration is struggling to get a strong, positive message to the American people. Whenever the administration wants to focus on a policy matter — remember Infrastructure Week and Energy Week? — the administration inevitably turns the country’s attention elsewhere.
Whenever the administration gets a win, like the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of a partial reinstatement of the Travel Ban, the president instead focuses the national conversation on a Mika Brzezinski’s (non-existent) facelift.
It’s little wonder the president has such low approval ratings.
One might be tempted to blame the administration’s communications staff for the bad narrative. After all, press secretary Sean Spicer’s approval rating is just 20 percent.
Spicer’s sometimes replacement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, already has a tense relationship with the press after defending the president’s tweet attacking Brzezinski.
The communications team is not to blame. The president himself is. Mr. Trump has an uncanny ability to shift the conversation from wins towards things that make him look undisciplined, malicious, or even crooked. No press secretary can prevent that.
Under normal circumstances, a good press secretary is invaluable. Before colon cancer took him, George W. Bush press secretary Tony Snow was beloved by conservatives and even reporters, providing a forceful and trustworthy voice for that administration’s positions. Bill Clinton’s press secretary Mike McCurry did an excellent job of staunching the bleeding for the Administration during the Lewinski scandal. I’ve even argued that, counter to the popular narrative, Sean Spicer is doing as good a job as he possibly can, given the circumstances.
Yet President Trump — in his unpredictability, his aversion to details, and his refusal to stay on message — has set up a situation where no one could succeed. Take the messaging on the Travel Ban. For months, the White House insisted that this wasn’t a ban. It was, they argued, a temporary measure designed to thwart specific threats. That argument was critical to the White House’s legal case.
Trump managed to undo months of careful planning in a few ill-considered tweets.
Or take the communications team’s careful messaging of the President’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey. The communications team claimed it was because Comey had lost the faith of the FBI rank and file. That explanation was at least plausible, albeit highly questionable. President Trump managed to undercut that semi-reasonable explanation by admitting on national television that he had already decided to fire Comey, regardless of the official explanation. He made matters even worse when he told the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister that, with Comey’s investigation quashed, he’d have more room to operate.
No press secretary can spin that to look good. The communications team had to fight to just to say this wasn’t obstruction of justice.
The list of episodes where the president’s shoot from the hip statements have undermined months of careful messaging is a long one. There was the time he called his own healthcare bill, the American Healthcare Act, "mean." There was the time he essentially confirmed he gave classified information to the Russians, even after his team insisted it never happened. Even his tweet about Brzezinski killed all forward momentum he had following the Supreme Court’s decision to institute a partial restatement of the Travel Ban.
There are countless other examples.
Huckabee Sanders has been taking on a larger share of the press briefings of late, which is a play to improve the administration’s image, given Spicer’s fraught relationship with the press. It won’t make any difference. She came in with some goodwill, sure. During the Melissa McCarthy SNL sketches mocking Spicer, the reporter characters asked the Huckabee Sanders character if she could do the briefing permanently. Her daughter tweeting out a bunch of emojis from her account made for a cute story.
Yet she is already viewed as untrustworthy. Being the leading voice defending the President’s tweets about Brzezinski cast her in a bad light, and blaming the media for the President’s decision to send a personal, angry tweet strained basic reason. She and the President similarly can’t get on the same page as to whether President Trump discussed sanctions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their stories directly contradict each other.
In just a few weeks of being the administration’s primary spokesperson, she has lost credibility. The president is responsible for that.
When an organization finds itself under fire — as this administration is — its first instinct is usually to think that it just needs to have a better message and state it more clearly. Public relations problems are easier to solve than real ones, after all. Yet that first instinct is almost always wrong, and it is wrong here, too. This is not about a communications strategy. Whoever the Trump administration puts forward as a spokesperson next will not succeed in painting the administration in a positive light, just as Spicer and Huckabee Sanders have fallen short. Until the president becomes more disciplined and focused, no spokesperson on the planet could succeed.
Neal Urwitz is the Director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a defense and national security think tank in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in media and congressional relations, having also worked for Fortune 500 companies on crisis communications and policy matters. He writes regular commentaries on the state of media in America. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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