Trump's drive around Walter Reed: Good instinct or a bad gamble?

Trump's drive around Walter Reed: Good instinct or a bad gamble?
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The good news for President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE and his supporters is that he appears to be recovering well from COVID-19 and has returned to work at the White House.

The bad news is that there are just about three weeks until Election Day and those who oppose the president will continue to attempt to use the coronavirus pandemic against him. Many who support Trump believe his contracting the virus will turn out to be a net plus for his campaign and, ultimately, the country. Who wins that argument won’t be known until after the Nov. 3 election.

Many polls show the president trailing former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE. However, the Trump campaign has a credible case to make that polls may be inaccurate, as they were in 2016 when public opinion polling showed him trailing Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonA path to climate, economic and environmental justice is finally on the horizon Polling misfired in 2020 — and that's a lesson for journalists and pundits Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe MORE. Trump voters may be choosing not to participate in polls, or the pollsters may be over-sampling in heavily Democratic areas. That truth also will be known in three or four weeks.  

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That said, one of the golden rules of any campaign is to run as if you are 10 points behind. To adhere to that rule, sometimes candidates and their campaigns take political and public relations gambles — such as the president leaving his hospital room at Walter Reed to ride past and wave to his supporters who held a vigil for him outside the hospital. Was that a risk worth taking?

Having “yes-people” who seek to shield a president from necessary truths and realities is kryptonite for the country’s leader. Many such enablers do so out of either a misguided belief that he is infallible, or that they need to shield him from bad news. Some would rather not get chewed out or put their job at risk by boldly speaking up. Yet none of those reasons serves the president.

The overriding duty of a president’s staff is to make sure he has the most honest and up-to-date information possible — even, and most especially, if it reflects poorly upon him.

It’s not a political duty, it’s an American duty.

Of course, many times the staff does give that honest advice and is it vetoed by the president. While we may never know, the drive around Walter Reed may have been just such an example. 

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I first became aware of Donald Trump while working in the White House for President Reagan in 1987 when I read “The Art of the Deal.” At the time, what he had to say rang true to me as an anti-academic, real-world way to conduct business. 

In a very positive way, it reminded me of the Rodney Dangerfield character from the movie “Back to School.” In that film, Dangerfield’s rough-around-the-edges, ultra-successful CEO character goes back to college to keep a protective eye on his son. While sitting in the back of his son’s Economics 101 class, he gets so frustrated by the professor (who never worked in business) incorrectly telling the class how to start a company that he finally jumps up to articulate how you start a business in the “real world.” The entire class soon turns their backs on the professor to stare at Dangerfield’s character, while furiously scribbling notes.

In many real and quite effective ways, Trump’s campaign for president in 2015 and 2016 was life imitating art. He morphed into Dangerfield’s character in the sense that he successfully caused millions of Americans to turn away from the entrenched elite professors, “experts” and pundits from both political parties to hear his real-world solutions to the country’s problems based upon his life and business experience.

One of the main reasons that Trump was able to win the White House was that his instincts were often on the mark. But they’re not always; he is not infallible. He makes mistakes, crosses lines, misreads the mood of the American people. 

We saw those very instincts at play during his first debate with Biden, and during the drive around Walter Reed Medical Center.

While the usual Trump-haters would have condemned him no matter what he did, some people genuinely thought the president made a mistake by leaving his hospital room to ride past his supporters. They worried that he might have put the health of his Secret Service detail at risk for a photo op. Others believed the president was genuinely touched by the support and wanted to offer his visible thanks, and that his aides volunteered to escort him.

For those who support this president, it does make sense to publicly circle the wagons around him when he’s under fire, given that most of the mainstream media, academics and political elites are united with the “Never Trumpers” against the president. But behind the scenes, it is the duty of his staff — who believe in the president and his vision for our nation — to reach out to him in confidence if they think he made a mistake.

Years ago, while at a meeting in the White House, I got some of the best ever political and life advice from former Bush adviser Karl RoveKarl Christian RoveChristie to co-chair fundraising program for Republican governors The Hill's Morning Report: Afghanistan's future now up to Afghans, Biden says The unholy alliance of religion and politics MORE. “I’ve got a thousand people a day telling me what I’m doing wrong,” he said. “If you’re going to do that, then you’d better offer me a solution to the criticism you’re dumping on me.” 

Like everyone, presidents make mistakes. When they do, they need honest staff members to step up and offer potential solutions to prevent a repeat of the mistake. 

“Trump being Trump” has proven to be a winning formula many times. It may be so again with both the drive around Walter Reed and the walk up the outside stairs of the White House to stand and salute Marine One after its crew brought him home.

As the “election of our lifetimes” draws near, President Trump has no room for error and does not need sycophants or enablers. He needs staff members who are willing to put that “Karl Rove rule” into practice. 

That is their duty to him — and our nation.

Douglas MacKinnon was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communication at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration. He is the author of: “The Dawn of a Nazi Moon: Book One.”