Will voters back message Trump is controlling?
By ANDREW MALCOLM | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: May 30, 2019
One distinctive characteristic of every presidency, regardless of party, is the powerful desire to control the flow of information about it. This is especially true during first terms, as the desire for a second one mounts.
As you may have noticed, President Donald Trump seeks to manage the messaging from and the reporting on his White House by flooding the zone with news, usually of his own making and from his own mouth or cellphone. It worked in 2016.
This is a precarious business in politics because like most humans, you see and hear exactly what you want to see and hear. Trump has gone through five communications directors in 28 months and currently has none. Or rather, the director of communications is the president himself.
An experienced user and consumer of both print and electronic media over many years, Trump thinks he knows better than any communications professionals. Actually, he knows he knows better.
Hence, you may also have noticed that Trump has discarded the almost-daily White House news briefing by a presidential spokesman.
“The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore,” Trump tweeted as his cover story, “is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press. I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway!”
Of course, the word gets out because the president himself puts it out his way on his schedule, which often sets the day’s news agenda and sets it around guess who?
He does this through tweets to his 61 million followers and brief exchanges with pool reporters on the lawn or during activities in the Oval Office or Cabinet Room.
This strategy has the distinct advantage for Trump of going over the heads of antagonistic media representatives to deliver unfiltered news to his base relatively free of the professional interrogatory pushback during more formal news conferences.
It also keeps the focus on Trump, which you may have additionally noticed is very important to him. Not always advantageous to him, but important.
Take last week, for instance. The president was scheduled to meet with Democratic congressional leaders to discuss a large spending measure for infrastructure repairs. Most everybody agrees this is necessary and seems to suit the political agendas of both parties 18 months before the 2020 election.
Three minutes into the meeting, the president of the United States walked out, citing a pre-meeting charge by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he’s engineering a “coverup.”
That may well have been deliberate bait by Pelosi, who knows like everybody else that counterpuncher Trump can’t let any accusation go unanswered, even when it’s to his advantage to do so.
Trump then announced that he would not be negotiating with Democrats on anything as long as they were investigating him, his family and his finances.
Trump himself delivered the blunt message exactly as he wanted. No spokesman needed.
The walkout and vow looked positively juvenile. His base loves such displays of tough talk, though, when the president tells off anybody with power in the D.C. swamp. Trump has conscientiously tended to that base every day he’s been in office. Polls show 90% of Republicans support him, which is high.
But here’s the problem: Republicans are a minority party; 90% of a minority party is an even smaller minority. Trump’s overall job approval is bobbing in the low 40s and has never once been above 50%.
Trump lost the 2016 popular vote to Hillary Clinton, 46% to her 48%. But his votes were in just the right places needed to capture 57% of the Electoral College.
Polls are not predictions, especially this far out. And naturally much of the 2020 outcome depends on the Democrats’ ticket, its financing and its effectiveness on the campaign trail. How attractive or dangerous an alternative does it seem?
But a combination of polls this month found that 54% said they would definitely not vote for Trump.
The economy is finally humming, with 3.2% annualized growth; unemployment is the lowest in six decades; and Islamic State has been forced to ground.
What accounts for the 54% antipathy, especially among the slim but decisive slice of persuadable independents, is this president’s behavior. It’s unpresidential. It mattered less last time because the alternative was so lame.
Trump’s base relishes his behavior. He relishes his base relishing it. And he knows he knows better than any director of communications on the market.
Trump’s true believers are the mirror image of the Never Trumps. Both are so deeply invested in their belief it appears that nothing could convince them otherwise. That gives this president some freedom to maneuver. He could with a daily dose of self-discipline keep those believers happy while recalibrating that behavior down a few notches to appeal to others.
Short of that, Donald Trump seriously risks going down in history as president of a lone term of tumult.
Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s.