Trump should tell the White House press corps to shove it
© Greg Nash

Reports of an imminent shake-up in the White House have been so constant over the last few months that one is tempted to dismiss them as yet more fake news from a media bound and determined to damage an administration they despise with a passion.

But the latest rumors swirling around Washington sound a lot more credible in the wake of the inept handling of the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the continuing flood of damaging leaks from anonymous “inside” sources. President Trump’s frustration with Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s flat-footed, defensive handling of the Comey firing has even led him to openly discuss the possibility of canceling the daily press briefing altogether, in favor of a biweekly presidential press conference.

As is often the case, the president’s instincts are on the money, and abolishing the daily press briefing should be the centerpiece of a new communications strategy from the White House. Although now regarded as an entitlement by White House correspondents, the daily press briefing is an innovation (instituted by the Nixon administration) that has long outlived its usefulness.

Long before this presidency, the briefing had devolved into a daily ritual where press corps poseurs paid to catch the White House in “gotcha” moments face down press secretaries paid to make no news by deflecting questions with bland media-speak.

ADVERTISEMENT

Under this administration, the daily briefing has gone from useless to ridiculous. Every day, Sean Spicer presides over an opportunity for highly paid correspondents to posture about the supposedly unprecedented level of mendacity on the part of the president and his representatives, relentlessly pushing the narrative that press freedoms and the public’s right to know are facing grave threats from the Trump administration.

 

Such feigned alarm about the First Amendment being under attack is, of course, absurd.  But the fact that it is utter hogwash does not mean that it’s not damaging. If the White House communications team is spending all of their time responding to questions about the latest unsourced leak planted in yesterday’s Washington Post, they are losing. And that seems to be precisely what they are doing — responding to false narratives created by a hostile media determined to destroy Trump rather than focusing on how he is fighting for the American people and fulfilling his campaign promises. 

That losing, defensive posture will continue as long as the White House communications team continues to play by the old media rules. But as the Trump campaign showed in somewhat shocking fashion, playing by those rules just isn’t necessary anymore. There are other ways to circumvent the mainstream media and communicate directly with voters.

Despite 24/7 negative coverage, which only became more skewed and hostile as election day approached, Trump was able to transcend the unremitting attacks by going around the mainstream media, even turning that hostility into his advantage. He did it by his direct use of social media, massive rallies that garnered automatic coverage, and by relying on alternative media to get his message out past the firewall set up by the traditional outlets.

The comms team in the White House seems to have forgotten that lesson, and nothing could be more emblematic of that than the cringe-inducing daily briefing (which should be renamed the Russia Conspiracy Update).

Sean Spicer, according to all Washington establishment measures, is a gifted and able communicator. He has had a successful career as a press secretary, and his work for the Republican National Committee was, by all accounts, perfectly solid. But his establishment bona fides are precisely why he is unsuited to be a spokesman for this president. His impeccable D.C. media flak credentials are not suited to playing the innovative game of offense that Trump needs to counter the relentlessly hostile media narrative. 

In all fairness, the problem with Spicer isn't really entirely his fault or of his making; rather it’s his training in the school of traditional Republican politics and all that that entails. Republican party orthodoxy (or Democratic orthodoxy for that matter) intuitively buys into the faulty premise created and perpetuated by the fourth estate, namely that the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post must set the table for any ensuing conversation.

It is precisely for this reason that his short tenure as press secretary to the president has been such a tumultuous and abysmal failure. Accepting that premise is at odds with Trump and his approach to communications. That faulty premise is ensconced in every question; whether it is the Russia investigation, the parlay over the healthcare debate, the questions about the president's tax returns, or the tirade over promises made and kept from the campaign trail. 

It is a premise that presumes guilt or corruption on the part of the president and insinuates that any reasonable response must acknowledge that fact in the form of an answer.  

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who stood in for Spicer on a few notable occasions recently, has been more effective at challenging the loaded premises that permeate the questions from the press corps, but simply replacing Spicer won’t solve the fundamental problem. The White House comms department needs to find new, edgy and innovative ways to interact with the new media that break the mold of the outdated traditional communications policy being pursued by Spicer. 

The president himself intuitively understands how best to communicate effectively with his constituency through both humor and anecdotes, as he displayed during the campaign. Channeling those innate talents through the use of videos and targeted social media, utilizing friendly outlets with much larger audiences than CNN, could help get out the White House message in a way that goes viral and reaches an audience that is actually receptive, rather than the pathetic current attempt to spin an audience determined to find a Russian under every bed.

Robert Wasinger served in senior advisory and liaison roles in President Trump's campaign and transition team, after extensive experience on Capitol Hill. 


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.