Eric Bovim: After The Mooch, what next for the White House press operation?
Trump needs to get on a script and stay on a script, for at least a week at a time.
In just days, President Trump has overhauled the leadership inside the White House. But if his new chief of staff cannot resuscitate the president’s beleaguered press operation then none of it may matter.
The White House communications machine has lost control of the narrative completely and is riding the mechanical bull of Twitter. Anthony Scaramucci, the White House’s communications director was fired this week just hours into General John Kelly’s tenure as new chief of staff. The former seemed destined to flame out after a profane interview with The New Yorker.
Who will succeed Scaramucci, and what must be done to right the ship? There is chatter that Kellyanne Conway could take over. She’d be a smart pick. Time is of the essence. For all the talk about the rampant dysfunction in the West Wing and the leaks, the Achilles heel of the Trump Administration has always been its hapless press operation.
President Trump’s press operation, so far, has been a mix of lampooned press briefings, polarizing presidential tweets, ad hoc events, a sprinkling of sometimes bombastic speeches. I can’t even think of any opinion pieces by President Trump. Trump, strangely, is at his best without a teleprompter. It’s no wonder his approval ratings are in the marshlands of the low 40s to his 30s.
Trump’s best week came in March, when he delivered a Reaganesque speech to Congress. It never stuck, however. The White House, ever since Sean Spicer came out blustering about crowd size after the inaugural, has been buffeted by one press crisis after another.
The tweets, however, are not the problem. The president, like a pent up child, is tweeting so often and so randomly because in reaction to his disjointed press strategy, if the Jackson Pollock of random activities could be called such.
President Trump, should not be encouraged to abandon Twitter. The president’s account, with 34.9 million followers, is the ultimate tool for speaking directly to the American voter. It’s a rare political tool that has yet to be properly harnessed. Put simply, to quote Corey Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager: 'Let Trump be Trump'.
That may be underway. Increasingly frustrated by seeing his message bottlenecked by the mainstream press, according to a source close to the White House, the president has been keen to pivot towards a more campaign style communications strategy that will include rallies in swing states and other direct-to-voter activities. I would hope, however, that Scaramuci’s successor will inject some stagecraft into some of these new communications efforts, play the pauses.
Under President Trump, we’ve shifted from an era of 24/7 news cycles to 'concurrent' news cycles. This administration is notable for the 'multiplicity' of news cycles borne by social media and perpetuated throughout the media bloodstream by accomplices in the mainstream press.
The result is that, during the day, we are now subjected to multiple news cycles. And it’s too much. We’re getting whiplash from watching a rally in Ohio one night, hearing the President decry Obamacare in a tweet earlier in the day (it’s 'torturing the American people'), only to learn again on Twitter the next morning that he has decided to ban transgender people from serving in the military. Couldn’t that decision have been staged a little differently?
From what I’m told, the White House has been eyeing a return to the campaign days of rolling press rallies and more frequent appearances by President Trump. Trump needs more exposure to voters, not less.
Rallies, however, are not enough. President Trump needs to get on a script and stay on a script, for at least a week at a time. And why shouldn’t the president use his pen and write some opinion articles, start higher level conversations beyond the ones he launches on Twitter? And why not deliver some traditional, well-staged speeches, during prime-time hours, on economic issues to spin the axle of his administration in a new direction, away from health care?
Finally - and this is most risky - why not trot out the President to conduct more of those free-wheeling press conferences on a bi-weekly basis? They would assuredly make news, and only President Trump has the political instincts to pull them off.
So far, the new chief of staff has shown a flair for the bold. Whether he can find a way to revive a listing press operation may determine more than whether the president’s approval ratings ever notch above 50 percent again.
Eric Bovim is managing director of SIGNAL Group, a public affairs firm based in Washington DC. He was an early supporter of President Donald J. Trump and he formerly served as a correspondent for Reuters in Madrid.