The Daily 202: Trump fills the job of White House communications director - with himself

Tuesday , April 17, 2018 - 7:30 AM

James Hohmann

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Hope Hicks announced her departure as White House communications director in February, but President Donald Trump has yet to name a replacement. Instead, he continues to do the job himself.

He drafts talking points. He organizes surrogates. He oversees rapid response. He maintains relationships with key media figures over dinners, rounds of golf and long phone calls. And, of course, he manages his own social media presence.

Since the 2016 election, five people have now done six stints as Trump’s communications director. One reason it’s an impossible job is that the former reality television star who occupies the Oval Office will always consider himself his own best spokesman.

-- The Jim Comey kerfuffle spotlights the extent to which Trump sees press as central to his portfolio.

After watching media coverage of the fired FBI director’s book, which comes out Tuesday, Trump has now blasted him on Twitter three of the past four days.

A senior administration official said the president was personally involved in drafting the scorching statement attacking Comey that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read from the podium on Friday.

Last June, when Comey testified before the Senate intelligence committee, Trump cleared his schedule to watch live from a White House dining room and oversee the pushback. “Ultimately, the best messenger is the president himself,” press secretary Sean Spicer said at the time. “He’s always proven that.”

Last May, several White House officials insisted adamantly and on the record that Comey had been fired because of a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But then Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt the next day that he already had decided to fire his FBI director before Rosenstein’s recommendation and would have done it regardless.

It’s now just one of dozens of examples of the president undercutting, contradicting and otherwise embarrassing the people who are paid to speak for him. “As a very active President with lots of things happening,” Trump explained at the time on Twitter, “it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!”

-- In January 2017, when Comey traveled with leaders of the intelligence community to New York to brief the president-elect on Russian efforts to interfere in the election, he was struck by how quickly Trump tried to change topics from national security to communications.

Jim Clapper, then the director of national intelligence, told Trump that the Russians had tried to hurt Hillary Clinton and help him. “President-elect Trump’s first question was to confirm that it had no impact on the election,” Comey told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in the interview that aired Sunday night. “And Director Clapper explained, as I think he already had, ‘No, we didn’t do that analysis. We found no Russian manipulation of vote count. We didn’t do an analysis of whether their work was effective in changing votes [or] changing the sentiment of the electorate.

“And then the conversation, to my surprise, moved into a PR conversation about how the Trump team would position this and what they could say about this. They actually started talking about drafting a press release with us still sitting there,” Comey recalled. “And the reason that was so striking to me is that’s just not done. The intelligence community does intelligence, the White House does PR and spin, and the searing lesson . . . of the Iraq war is you don’t mix the two. We give you facts and then we leave and then you figure out what you’re going to tell people about them, if anything. But it moved right into this, ‘Let’s figure out what to say about it,‘ kinda deal.”

Comey was also taken aback at what Trump and his top advisers, including Mike Pence and Reince Priebus, did not ask during the briefing at Trump Tower. “You’re about to lead a country that has an adversary attacking it,” the former FBI director said, “and I don’t remember any questions about, ‘So what are they going to do next? How might we stop it? What’s the future look like? Because we’ll be custodians of the security of this country.‘ There was none of that! It was all, ‘What can we say about what they did and how it affects the election that we just had?‘”

-- For decades, Trump famously masqueraded as his own publicist to brag about himself. From the 1970s through the 1990s, the president would call up reporters claiming to be “John Miller” or “John Barron.” The “spokesman” for Trump would boast that women were drawn to Trump sexually, among other things.

-- The president naturally gravitates toward being his own spokesman because he believes he can talk his way out of any pickle. That’s why he’s been more willing to sit down for an interview with Bob Mueller’s team than his lawyers, who openly fret that he’ll walk into what they call a “perjury trap.”

“My primary consultant is myself,” Trump said in March 2016.

“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he declared at the Republican National Convention in July 2016.

Last November, Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked the president about all the vacancies in high-level jobs at the State Department. “I’m the only one that matters,” Trump replied. “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me . . . because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that. You’ve seen it strongly.”

-- But Trump also seeks out others to speak for him, a task typically performed by apparatchiks in the press shop. He’s known to call and thank people who say positive things about him on television. He’s put Fox Business host Lou Dobbs on speakerphone during meetings in the Oval Office to seek his perspective. A CBS reporter last week:

Jacqueline Alemany tweeted “A source tells me that Trump called yesterday and asked source to go on TV to call for Trump to fire Mueller.”

Trump spent last week glued to cable news coverage of the FBI raid of his attorney Michael Cohen’s home, office and hotel room. This made him agitated and led him to vent to reporters that evening. He also worked the phones. One person he is in touch with is Joseph diGenova, even though the firebrand lawyer did not formally join his legal team. Last Wednesday, the president tweeted: “Big show tonight on @seanhannity! 9:00 P.M. on @FoxNews.” Hannity is close with Trump, and it turns out they share Cohen as a lawyer. But the president appears to have been promoting that night’s show because Hannity’s guest was diGenova. He declared that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “has a duty to fire Rod Rosenstein,” called Comey a “dirty cop” and described Mueller’s team as “legal terrorists.”

-- To be sure, every president has an outsized view of his own abilities. You don’t seek the job unless you have excessive self-regard and think you’re more qualified to lead the country than 300-plus million other people. “I’m LeBron, baby,” Barack Obama said on the day he gave the keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. “I can play on this level. I got some game.”

When he was interviewing Patrick Gaspard to be his first political director, Obama told him: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

To succeed in office, though, the commander in chief must learn to delegate. One reason Jimmy Carter struggled as president was that he micromanaged. Even 40 years later, he’s still mocked for controlling the White House tennis court schedule.

-- Trump trying to be his own flack has already created myriad problems. The president made his own legal headaches worse last summer when he personally dictated the misleading statement claiming that his son Don Jr.‘s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016 was primarily about adoption. Three days later, Trump Jr. was forced to acknowledge that he accepted the meeting only after receiving an email promising dirt about Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.

-- It’s also especially easy to get under his skin. The rollout of Comey’s book was designed to get Trump’s goat and force an over-the-top response that would boost sales. The president has walked right into the trap.

“It’s just like everybody wakes up every morning and does whatever is right in front of them,” a West Wing aide told The Post last week for a story on the president’s impulsiveness. “Oh, my God, Trump Tower is on fire. Oh, my God, they raided Michael Cohen’s office. Oh, my God, we’re going to bomb Syria. Whatever is there is what people respond to, and there is no proactive strategic thinking.”

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With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.

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