Trump’s unconventional new guru for messaging

Courtesy of Black Rock Group

The new face in the Trump White House charged with improving long-term messaging is seen as an unconventional choice for the job of communications director.

Mike Dubke is a veteran political strategist familiar with media buys and issue advocacy.

{mosads}The co-founder of the public relations firm Black Rock Group, Dubke has been involved in politics since 1988. He once served as the executive director of the Ripon Society, and he more recently helped Alaska’s Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan win their respective elections.

But Dubke has never typed out a press release on Capitol Hill, toiled on a speech for a member of Congress or sat in on strategy sessions for a presidential candidate’s message — the typical bullet points on the resumes of his predecessors.

He also isn’t your typical talking head, having never appeared on a cable news show before.

And while the 46-year-old has been around Washington, he’s not an entirely familiar face.

One longtime colleague said even some Republicans asked, “Who?” when they were told that Dubke would take over as White House communications director from Sean Spicer, who had been filling the role while also working as press secretary.

Kevin McLaughlin, who worked alongside Dubke on several Senate races, dubbed him the “smartest, most successful person in Washington you’ve never heard of.”

“He is the rare operative who not only shuns the spotlight, he runs from it,” he said.

Dubke keeps a low profile.

He declined to participate in this story. And unlike his new boss, he’s not a frequent voice on Twitter:  He sent out two tweets in 2016, and three in 2015 — once to retweet a gif about his beloved Buffalo Bills, the team the season ticket-holder still travels up to see play on Sundays.

“He hasn’t been a communications director for a lawmaker or a president, but he’s run a communications company, he’s an exceptional manager and he understands organization,” the longtime colleague said of Dubke.

Hours before accepting the position, Dubke was already at work attending Trump’s Feb. 16 press conference, where the president renewed his war with the media. Trump’s back-and-forth gave him a sense of the challenges he’ll face in working with the president, whose public comments sometimes appear to take his staff by surprise.

Dubke consulted with friends and colleagues before taking the White House job, which Trump had been having trouble filling. Several candidates approached by top aides in the West Wing turned down the high-profile post earlier this month.

One of those candidates, Brian Jones, thought his friend would be a good fit. It helped that Spicer and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, like Jones, had known Dubke for some time.

And while Dubke isn’t a Trump insider, some think his personality and upstate New York roots will help him with the president.

Like Trump, “he’s a bit of a disrupter himself,” the longtime associate said. “He likes to mix things up.”

And he’s seen as being in touch with the white working-class electorate who helped catapult Trump to the Oval Office.

The day after the White House announced that Dubke had taken the job, he found himself holed up in the West Wing along with Spicer and other White House aides massaging the Department of Homeland Security directives on immigration.

One White House aide said the rookie communications director helped quarterback the process from a messaging perspective, spending the whole day on conference calls with agency officials and making sure everyone was on the same page.

“That was one of the biggest problems for the White House before he got there,” one Republican strategist said. “There was a complete breakdown in communication between the White House and the agencies. There wasn’t a coordinated message.”

Dubke, who has been known to walk the West Wing corridors armed with a large water jug, has already hit a few snags.

Last week, after Trump issued an executive order that ended an Obama-era order allowing transgender students to use school facilities corresponding to their gender identities, the White House was forced to defend reports that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was initially reluctant to sign off. 

The White House also found itself having to explain why senior adviser Kellyanne Conway was seemingly sidelined from television interviews, a move that came around the same time that Dubke took hold of the communications reigns. White House officials denied Conway was sidelined in the first place.

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who met Dubke while working on Alaska politics, said the two Senate races in that state highlight the new communications director’s skills as a strategist.

Dubke helped both the conservative Sullivan and the more centrist Murkowski win.

“The adaptability that I’ve seen in him in navigating those two races is so telling,” Mackowiak, who also writes for The Hill’s Contributors section, said. “It proves that he can adapt strategically to different situations, which he is going to need at the White House.

“They can’t just take the campaign playbook and use it in every situation, particularly if he needs to win over independents and moderates,” Mackowiak said of Trump.

Tags Lisa Murkowski
See all Hill.TV See all Video