As President Donald Trump’s administration tries to push his agenda, one of its biggest stumbling blocks is turning out to be the White House’s own press office.
Trump is known to be obsessed with public perception and reportedly takes time every day to watch White House press secretary Sean Spicer give his daily briefing. Yet the first weeks of Trump’s administration have been filled with stunningly basic blunders that have distracted from the White House’s message.
There are growing pains whenever a new press operation takes over and new staffers get used to working with each other, said Stu Loeser, who served as press secretary to then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for over six years. Still, he said, the new team needs to recognize that even the smallest errors can create a distraction.
“If you’re talking about spell-checking, fact-checking and batting back questions of plagiarism, you’re not talking about the economic populism that drove your boss to the White House and how he’s making the country and the economy better for the American people,” Loeser said. “If you shape up the quality ... it lets you talk about what you want to be talking about.”
Earlier this month, the White House blasted out several media stories praising Trump’s first budget proposal. One of those pieces had this apparently positive headline: “Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why.” But somebody missed that the Washington Post column was, in fact, satirical.
The opening lines written by Alexandra Petri make this overwhelmingly clear:
“Some people are complaining that the budget proffered by the Trump administration, despite its wonderful macho-sounding name, is too vague and makes all sorts of cuts to needed programs in favor of increasing military spending by leaps and bounds. These people are wimps. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has called it a ‘hard power budget,’ which is, I think, the name of an exercise program where you eat only what you can catch, pump up your guns and then punch the impoverished in the face. This, conveniently, is also what the budget does.”
In early March, the White House congratulated Exxon Mobil on a new expansion with a statement containing an entire paragraph copied and pasted from an Exxon Mobil press release. The ripoff was especially noteworthy because the oil giant’s former CEO, Rex Tillerson, now serves as secretary of state.
While some of the mistakes are small, even the tiniest errors from the White House can undermine the credibility of the president. Meredith Bohen, a former fact-checker for the Obama White House, wrote in January that she and her colleagues were charged with making sure that even the smallest details announced by the White House were accurate, down to the number of Bo and Sunny cookies served at the White House holiday party.
“Most of the time, the work of fact-checking felt like a necessary part of upholding the integrity of both President Obama and the office of the presidency as a whole,” Bohen wrote in Vox. “Day after day, my coworkers and I came into work, sat down at our desks, and vetted the president’s words for accuracy. That’s part of what makes the institution of president of the United States strong, one that the American people can trust.”
It doesn’t help when other parts of the Trump administration follow the White House’s looser ways.
On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency sent out a press release featuring praise of the president’s executive order on climate change. The release was supposed to lead with a quote from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who was present when Trump signed the order, describing it as a campaign promise kept.
Not only was Capito’s name spelled wrong, but the quote attributed to her was actually from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a major critic of the executive order.
The EPA apologized for the error and said they are “making sure that our process is improved as we build our team.”
Getting the details right is not the president’s only communications problem. The Trump administration has stepped on its own message on more than one occasion.
On Feb. 28, the president gave a well-received address to Congress. But instead of enjoying the media glow, the White House almost immediately had to deal with the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during his confirmation hearings, had failed to disclose prior meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sessions was forced to recuse himself from any investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia ― a decision that reportedly infuriated the president.
Days later, without any evidence, Trump tweeted that then-President Barack Obama had wiretapped him. The explosive allegation, which FBI Director James Comey and others have said is untrue, created weeks of distraction for the White House, which has stood by Trump’s claim.
Similarly, at a bipartisan meeting with senators in February, held to garner support for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Trump chose to reiterate his belief that there was widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire last year. Again, there was no evidence for his claim.
A lot of stumbles in the Trump administration’s messaging come in the simplest form: typos, often in the president’s tweets. In early March, it took three attempts for a tweet from the @realDonaldTrump account to spell the word “hereby” correctly.
Trump’s team has struggled with its visual messaging as well. While the president is quick to play to the cameras while signing an executive order or making a speech, these events often feel overly staged. The Trump administration has failed to capitalize on the power of more candid photography ― as the Obama administration did so well.
In January, the White House hired Shealah Craighead, who previously worked for the George W. Bush administration and for Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential campaign, as its chief photographer. But so far Craighead has released no photos to the public.
A message can also be sent in the way that the press operation is run, Loeser said. For example, the communications team for Bloomberg, who like Trump ran on his reputation as a successful businessman, sought to ensure that reporters always had access to basic planning materials.
“The most important way we found we could drive coverage that showed that Mayor Bloomberg was an effective, no-nonsense manager who was running the city well was to serve reporters as if they were clients, with quality and consistency,” Loeser said. “Things as ordinary and boring as the daily schedule, getting it out consistently on time.”
The Trump press operation, by contrast, repeatedly leaves reporters in the dark. During the transition period, Trump went out on multiple occasions after his team had told the press there would be no more activity that night. Press aides have refused to identify the president’s weekend golfing partners. Spicer has even shut some reporters out of press gaggles. All that tends to enforce the idea that the president is hiding something.
As for Trump’s impulsive habits on Twitter and elsewhere, Loeser said his press team should find a way to explain why those habits are actually beneficial for the country.
“If you can’t change something about your boss, you need to shape a broader narrative that takes advantage of what could otherwise be a weak point,” Loeser said. “If you can’t change your boss directly engaging with reporters, then you need to build that into part of a more positive persona ― that he is data-driven and fair or that he’s concerned about the details.”
That may not be the precise way to go with Trump, but you get the message.