Trump, GOP lawmakers struggle with messaging

Trump, GOP lawmakers struggle with messaging
© Getty

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, but he wasn’t aware it was “Energy Week” at the White House. Neither was Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, a member of the GOP leadership team. 

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), an ally of President Trump’s, also couldn’t name the theme of the week but said he knew last week was “Workforce Development Week.” It actually was “Technology Week.”

“It might as well be Easter Bunny Week,” quipped Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).

In June, the White House launched a series of themed weeks focused on aspects of the president's jobs message: infrastructure, workforce development, tech and energy. 

But in many cases, that message didn’t seem to reach Republicans on Capitol Hill.

That has frustrated some GOP lawmakers, who say it’s a sign of the White House's inability to drive a consistent policy message and drive the president’s agenda.

The White House says it’s working hard to coordinate with congressional Republicans, though some officials acknowledged there’s always room for improvement. But aides said they’ve set up a system that’s shown positive results.

Each Monday morning, the White House communications staff sends out a talking-points memo about its theme for the week to every House and Senate GOP communicator, as well as key outside allies.

That message is followed by an afternoon meeting on Capitol Hill led by deputy communications director Jessica Ditto and assistant director of Cabinet communications Brad Rateike. White House press secretary Sean Spicer and top adviser Kellyanne Conway have also stopped by those meetings, an official said.

A follow-up meeting is held on Tuesdays with as many as a dozen GOP lawmakers and their staffs and White House message strategy director Cliff Sims. 

Still, there are signs that both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue aren’t on the same page. 

As Trump declared the last week in June “Energy Week,” Senate Republicans scrapped a vote on an ObamaCare repeal and replace bill amid infighting over how it should be structured.

Across the Capitol, House Republicans highlighted votes on two bills cracking down on illegal immigration and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAEI names Robert Doar as new president GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King MORE (R-Wis.) brought a special guest, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, to his weekly news conference to discuss immigration enforcement — something the White House trumpeted as an example of coordination with Capitol Hill.

But the word “energy” wasn’t uttered once in front of the cameras.

Trump mentioned the immigration bills in a speech at the Energy Department, the centerpiece of the White House’s “Energy Week” push. But he did not call on Congress to pass any specific energy-related legislation in his remarks. He focused instead on unilateral actions taken by his administration.

“My administration will seek not only American energy independence that we’ve been looking for so long, but American energy dominance,” the president said.

“There is obviously some disconnect,” said Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashDems revive impeachment talk after latest Cohen bombshell McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader On The Money: Trump says he won't declare emergency 'so fast' | Shutdown poised to become longest in history | Congress approves back pay for workers | More federal unions sue over shutdown MORE (R-Mich.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a frequent Trump critic. 

That disconnect has hurt the White House's ability to amplify its message, critics said.

Many GOP lawmakers said they were unaware of any weekly talking points or fact sheets from the White House. But Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHillicon Valley: Republicans demand answers from mobile carriers on data practices | Top carriers to stop selling location data | DOJ probing Huawei | T-Mobile execs stayed at Trump hotel as merger awaited approval House Republicans question mobile carriers on data practices Washington governor announces killer whale recovery plan MORE (R-Wash.) do walk members through the House’s weekly theme and vote schedule. And GOP aides said leadership does send members emails each week that includes key messaging from the White House. 

However, it’s clear not all of those emails get opened and read.

“I think we could all do a better job at coordinating our message,” Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) told The Hill.

“If we want to sell it to the American people, we should [communicate] what we’re doing this week, whether it’s energy, whether it’s infrastructure, whether it’s helping tech expand in the country, by explaining what it is we’re trying to get accomplished with our goals and the laws that are being made.”

The policy-themed weeks have also been overshadowed by Trump himself, like on Thursday when he launched a personal Twitter attack against MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski that was condemned by leaders and lawmakers in both parties and dominated the news cycle. 

Other times, Trump’s themed weeks have been overtaken by events, such as former FBI Director James Comey's riveting testimony on Capitol Hill. That event overshadowed “infrastructure week.” Comey may have never testified if Trump had not abruptly fired him for what he said was his handling of the Russia investigation. 

Trump’s announcement that he does not have tapes of his conversations with Comey, more than a month after he made the stunning suggestion, stole headlines during “Technology Week.” 

Sometimes, the events have been outside of the president’s control, such as the mass shooting at a congressional baseball practice that nearly killed House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

White House officials blame the media for not focusing on the “substance” of Trump’s policy agenda, instead dedicating airtime to the Russia probe and the president’s tweets.

“Even when you look at the network coverage: in a five-week period between May and June, 353 minutes spent covering Russia, FBI, Comey — a totally fantastical, hypothetical charade. Less than a minute spent on tax reform, five minutes spent on jobs. I mean, this is the culture we live in now,” Conway said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

GOP leadership sources downplayed talk of a disconnect. They said there are constant conversations between the White House and congressional leaders on messaging and the agenda. 

“How it plays out isn’t a uniformed approach each time though,” a GOP leadership aide said. “Some weeks we want to have floor activity and White House activity together. Other weeks we want to give the White House the space to raise the issue nationally with the bully pulpit and then the House will follow up the next week with legislative activity.”

For example, the House passed a pair of workforce bills just a week after the White House held its workforce development week. “A one-two punch if you will — by design,” the aide said.

Another time, the House passed legislation in advance of a themed week. Earlier this month, the House took up the Modernizing Government Technology Act a week before tech CEOs — including Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — arrived for a White House tech summit.

In his prepared remarks to tech executives, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, mentioned the House’s vote on the tech bill.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who unsuccessfully ran for Energy and Commerce chairman last year, said he wasn’t sure if the theme of the week was “energy.” “We don’t get anything” from the White House, he said.

But Shimkus pointed out that his Energy panel spent five-plus hours this week marking up energy-related legislation focused on gas pipelines, storage of nuclear waste and hydropower.

Even if the effort was uncoordinated, Shimkus said, Hill Republicans are still passing bills that are implementing the president’s energy agenda.

Reed made a similar point. The New York Republican said during the White House’s workforce week, he took it upon himself to roll out the bipartisan LEAP Act with Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.). The bill would provide a tax credit to employers who offer apprenticeships. 

GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is running for the Senate in coal-friendly West Virginia, was one of the rare Republicans interviewed was aware it was “Energy Week.” It’s important, Jenkins said, to try to “break through the incredible amount of clutter out there and try to get a message across.”

But Jenkins said he had no complaints about the progress being made on the energy front, starting with some of Trump’s executive orders rolling back environmental regulations.

“It’s not that I’m worried is Energy Week getting the attention it deserves; it’s the fact that for 150-plus days, we have taken such significant action on energy issues,” Jenkins told The Hill just outside the Capitol.

“This is not a one-week theme. This has been a mission that is showing real results.”

Amash, a lawyer and self-described constitutional conservative, said he has no problem with the White House promoting themed weeks. He just thinks it’s up to Congress to set the legislative agenda.

“I think it’s better that we’re setting the agenda and the White House is following our lead,” Amash said. “We’re the legislative branch. That’s how our system of government works. The legislative branch makes the laws; the president gets to sign or veto.”