Trump’s White House struggles with messaging

The White House has failed to drive a consistent message since President Trump took office less than a month ago, worrying allies that the president’s pivotal first 100 days won’t amount to much. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this — never, ever,” said one senior aide who served in former President George W. Bush’s White House. “It’s astounding.”

Part of the reason for the rough start, Trump allies maintain, is because the White House lacks a full-time communications director who can steer strategy and guide long-term planning.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer — who has had a bumpy tenure behind the lectern — has been pulling double-duty and working both high-pressure jobs. 

And while Spicer confidants say he is settling into his job as the official White House mouthpiece, they say he’ll feel the weight lifted off his shoulders when a permanent communications director is hired. That role will be filled “as soon as possible,” according to one source familiar with the process. Ann Marie Hauser, the deputy staff director of the Senate Republican Conference, is one candidate who is being considered for the position.

In the absence of a communications director, “it is challenging for the press secretary to handle it all,” said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush. “If they can get that level of strategic support here, that would be helpful.” 

McBride added that the perfect candidate would be someone who had relationships with the White House policy shop in order to improve coordination in communicating policies.

Filling the open position, of course, might not solve all of the Trump administration’s messaging problems.

Trump’s White House has faced turmoil with a string of internal leaks about the opposing factions in the building. There have also been gaffes, like the one made last week by senior aide Kellyanne Conway, when she delivered a sales pitch for Ivanka Trump’s fashion line from the briefing room. 

This week’s big distraction is the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, who discussed the issue of sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States and then misled Vice President Pence about his conversations. The Flynn fallout has raised new questions about contacts between Trump’s team and Russia, which has been accused by intelligence agencies of interfering with the election to help Trump win.

Republicans and even staunch Trump allies acknowledge that the White House has yet to steer the ship and get ahead of the news cycle to advance its work since the president took office. 

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump's plan to claw back spending hits wall in Congress GOP lawmakers want Trump to stop bashing Congress Parkland father calls out Trump, McConnell, Ryan after Santa Fe shooting MORE (R-Ky.) singled out Trump, saying the president’s public remarks and his off-message missives on Twitter are interfering with his agenda and his approval ratings in the polls. 

“[It’d be] 10 to 15 points higher if he allowed himself to stay on message,” McConnell told the Weekly Standard. “What he’s saying makes everything harder. [They make it] harder to achieve what you want to achieve.”

Trump made headlines on Wednesday during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he chose to answer a question on an increase of anti-Semitism with comments on how he won the Electoral College.

Earlier in the day, even his allies were surprised when he missed an opportunity to get ahead of the Russia story by tweeting: “This Russian connection non-sense [sic] is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonStopping Robert Mueller to protect us all Hillary Clinton hits Trump, pulls out Russian hat during Yale speech Giuliani: Mueller plans to wrap up Trump obstruction probe by Sept. 1 MORE’s losing campaign.”

One Trump associate said the tweets were only adding to the story.

“Part of the problem is Trump is using social media to go outside the media coverage, and that’s sometimes an impossible thing to do,” the associate said. “But eventually the clouds do part.” 

Those who have served in the White House during previous administrations are signaling that the dark clouds may loom over 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for quite some time.

“It’s hard to overstate how distracting this will be for the Trump [administration],” Tommy Vietor, who served as a spokesman to former President Obama, wrote on Twitter Wednesday above a story about the Russian investigation. “Likely to have repercussions for years.” 

The senior aide who served under Bush said the White House has to learn to deal with these larger stories directly because “details emerge in dribs and drabs and the stories perpetuate themselves.” 

“They have very little chance of moving on until they deal with this big story, and they’re the only ones who can do it,” the former aide said. “They have to come fully clean on it as much as they can without compromising national security and try to make a convincing case that that’s the end of the story, there’s nothing else to show on this, and that they’re going to work with the Intelligence committees to make sure Congress is fully satisfied on this question.”

If the White House continues to brush off questions, the story will only loom larger, the aide said.

“It isn’t going to go away,” the former aide added. “People are going to continue to look for new angles to the story, and it seems there are a fair share of people in the intelligence community who are in the mood to set the record straight when they feel the administration isn’t being forthcoming.”

Trump criticized Democrats and the intelligence community on Wednesday for leaking information.

McBride said Flynn’s resignation this week may have been a tipping point for this White House. 

“Even though his actions were not illegal, the loss of confidence is something that’s destructive to the White House,” she said. “I’m sure that send a clear message. Something like that should send a shockwave throughout the staff.”