Following a disastrous week in which his administration failed to contain the fallout from the firing of FBI director James Comey, President Donald Trump is reportedly considering a shake-up of his communications team.
Trump’s press shop was literally blindsided by the sudden dismissal, having learned of the bombshell only an hour before it went public. They scrambled to respond, and mounted a sloppy and uncoordinated messaging strategy that would ensnare its spokespeople in a bipartisan criticism. Trump was incensed by his administration’s bungled response to the news, and laid most of the blame for failing to quell the controversy on his favorite whipping boy, Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Spicer’s tenure as press secretary has been a tumultuous one. Since his infamous first briefing in January in which he lectured reporters on Trump’s inauguration crowd size in a bizarre ritual of favor-currying, Spicer has struggled through a series of painful missteps and meme-worthy gaffes.
Then this week, an avalanche of embarrassing reports detailed Spicer’s scramble to brief the press after learning of Comey’s ouster. After emerging from the bushes, Spicer was banished the next day to serve his Navy duty, leaving deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as the face of the White House clean-up job.
The famously mercurial president was reportedly impressed with Sanders’ press briefing on Wednesday, igniting rumors that he was considering her as a replacement for Spicer. The media reception to her briefing was also favorable, with many noting that her “charm and disarm” approach fared better than Spicer’s combative command of the podium. It was a notable shift in packaging: Sanders put a more refined polish on Spicer’s typically shrill and pugnacious style. Her bullish defenses of the president were delivered without the apparent frustration or stammering we’ve come to expect from Spicer.
But the honeymoon was short-lived. As Sanders took the podium on Thursday amidst a growing cloud of confusion and controversy surrounding Comey’s firing, she struggled to reconcile the many incongruous accounts coming from the White House. Trump, frustrated with media coverage and his administration’s inability to explain the decision, made matters worse: speaking with NBC’s Lester Holt, the president said he planned to fire Comey regardless of the recommendation from the Justice Department, directly contradicting his spokespeople and even Vice President Mike Pence.
The barrage of inconsistent messaging from the White House this week was dizzying: an official statement was made, then undermined by a surrogate, then doubled-downed on by an aide, before being completely overturned by the president in an off-the-cuff comment during a televised interview. The result was Sanders’ Thursday briefing, in which she delivered a Spicer-esque performance: she condescended and obfuscated, clashed with reporters, and later suffered embarrassing headlines. Her testy exchange with Jonathan Karl of ABC was peak-Spicer.
What can one take away from this communications mess? That the Trump Administration’s press shop faces an impossible task: squaring the president’s shifting and fact-challenged worldview with reality on a daily basis.
While Spicer has faced widespread ridicule for his showings in the briefing room, it’s now clear that not even the most talented press secretary would fare any better. As seen this week, it’s not just a question of spinning dubious claims: his spokespeople must also prepare to have, at the last minute, their carefully prepared talking points upended by the president himself.
It’s stunning that Spicer only learned of Comey within an hour of his dismissal, reportedly because the president feared the news leaking to the press. After Spicer departed for Navy duty, Sanders was left to decipher Trump’s desired messaging. Per Politico, she saw Trump’s interview with Holt just minutes before her Thursday briefing, and was forced to carve out new responses to questions on Comey last-minute. When Spicer returned to the podium on Friday, he confessed that he doesn’t always meet with Trump before his briefings, a shocking admission emphasizing the disconnect between the president and his press shop.
A shakeup of the White House communications team is unlikely to remedy the problem at the core of this beleaguered administration: that undisciplined strategy and dubious assertions ultimately come from the top. When Spicer is finally cut loose, Sanders or a Fox News talking head will fill his place, only to have their credibility gradually sacrificed at the altar of the administration’s incompetence and inconsistency. Until the president realizes that his administration must tame itself — a much-awaited pivot, perhaps? — he can continue to expect his exasperated spokespeople to suffer at the hands of a hawk-eyed and indefatigable press corps.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.