Since Day One, Donald Trump’s White House has failed where he once had his most success — on television. Anthony Scaramucci intends to turn that around.
According to Republicans close to the White House, Scaramucci — one of Trump’s few regular on-air allies and now his communications director — will make booking members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and party strategists on TV a priority to regain some measure of control over the storylines dominating Washington. It is this surrogate operation that was never properly developed by Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, they say.
The former Wall Street financier and GOP insider known as the Mooch signaled this week that he understands the value of Trump aides being seen on TV, tweeting he would reinstate regular televised press briefings at the White House.
“They’re missing an opportunity, especially since they don’t like what they are hearing in the press,” said Taylor Griffin, who booked surrogates on TV in the George W. Bush White House. “One of the things we hear about the Mooch is he’s going to put together a sophisticated operation.”
Trump has had a small team dedicated to surrogate operations from the start, but they had not been aggressive about asking their allies to appear on TV, according to five people familiar with the situation under Spicer.
As a result, there had been little coverage of the White House’s policy priority statements or its theme weeks, such as last week’s “Made in America” focus or this week’s “American Heroes Week.”
“It’s a missed opportunity,” said a former Trump aide who is in regular contact with the White House. “They have to do a better job selling their story. If you don’t tell your story, someone is going to tell it for you.”
It’s not an easy ask for a press shop that knows its surrogates will face a slew of tough questions on topics that go beyond the policy issue of the day. Many are unprepared and unwilling to deal with questions about the FBI and congressional investigations into whether Trump’s team colluded with Russia to meddle in the presidential election, Trump’s prolific and incendiary tweets or the potential ethical conflicts with the family business.
Plus, the president often changes his mind on issues — a recent example was his own strategy for replacing the Affordable Care Act — making the task of speaking for him nearly impossible.
“It puts people in difficult positions when things change,” another former aide said. “You can’t get surrogates on TV when story is changing.”
But Republican operatives and communications experts think it’s necessary, and something Scaramucci will tackle.
“The administration gets in the way of its own message all the time,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who is a paid political commentator on CNN. “You still want your advocates out there making the best case for you.”
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Jonathan Felts, who served as White House political director for President George W. Bush and is close to people in the Trump White House
Spicer, a longtime communications director at the RNC, understands the value of television, helping organize a surrogate operation for the party for years. Several people who spoke to Spicer and other aides about possibly joining the communications staff in recent months touted the benefit of using surrogates to control the debate and spread the message.
This hole in the communication strategy — which marks a break from previous Republicans and Democratic presidents — has baffled Trump supporters who believe Trump, facing record low approval ratings, would be more successful if he could get his message out.
They cite his biggest success to date: The Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch that followed a publicity blitz that included booking supporters on TV to talk about the judge’s qualifications and records. The nomination fight, however, was run largely by outside advisers and the Republican National Committee.
Under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, aides were in constant contact with network bookers, offering surrogates who could appear on TV on myriad of topics, former aides say. Their lists included dozens and dozens of people — members of Congress, governors and other state and local officials, policy experts and administration officials. Some were regularly brought to the White House for policy updates, where the president might drop by, they say.
When the White House under Bush and Obama introduced a new policy, aides found experts to explain on national television what it meant to Americans. When Cabinet secretaries traveled around the nation, aides had them give interviews to local reporters. When the nation’s governors were in Washington for meetings, aides would ask them to appear on TV.
The White House declined to comment on the specifics of its work but issued a statement defending its overall efforts, which it says included more than 80 interviews conducted last Wednesday with local media for what it dubbed “regional media day.”
“The White House has a strategic booking operation that serves a very important function in our communications team,” spokeswoman Kelly Love said. “Our team sends out daily talking points and messages throughout the day, books administration personnel on dozens of television, radio and local news programs daily to aggressively promote the president’s message to the American people.”
A White House spokesperson also said Tuesday that the White House staff is not allowed to book non-administration officials — a break from the surrogate operations of previous presidencies.
Dag Vega, who led the surrogate operations in the Obama White House for six years, said the president had cultivated the “army of advocates” over years while he was in elective office and running for president. Similarly, Bush often relied on many governors he worked alongside while he served as longtime governor of Texas.
Trump didn’t have those types of contacts.
What he does have is television experience, and a television-watching obsession. And that presents another potential pitfall for surrogates who would speak for him on TV: They know he’s watching, and critiquing.
After senior adviser Stephen Miller made a round on the Sunday talk shows in February to tout several policies, including Trump’s sweeping temporary halt on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, the president tweeted: “Congratulations Stephen Miller on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!”
One of Trump’s favorites on TV was Boris Epshteyn, assistant communications director for surrogate operations, who led a small team booking supporters. He was fired in March for reasons unrelated to his job, according to several people familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly. Several aides are still tasked with booking while Kelly Sadler, a special assistant to the president, tries to spread Trump’s message but hasn’t had much success.
At least three Republicans strategists who regularly appear on television, but not at the White House’s request, say Sadler has been emailing them talking points on various issues, including health care and the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, sometimes several times a day. One said he received seven in one day.
Anthony Scaramucci begins his job as communications director Aug. 15
Occasionally, they get invited to be on conference calls to hear about specific policy proposals or the president’s agenda from top aides. Counselor Kellyanne Conway spoke on a recent call.
But Republican and Democratic strategists say the Trump White House should do more to get its message out: Have members of Congress coordinate their bills with White House issues and then tout them in speeches and on TV; dispatch administration officials to TV or radio interview after a proposal is released; and sell networks on an administration guest by allowing them to take questions but only after they speak about a certain policy issue.
Instead, television networks have largely filled the void by hiring their own political commentators, which has become more popular in recent years.
Former Trump aides Jason Miller, Bryan Lanza , Corey Lewandowski, David Urban and Jack Kingston appear on TV, though nearly all have become paid political commentators on the networks. Scott Jennings, a former Bush aide who turned down a job at the White House, is a paid CNN commentator.
At least one GOP communications veteran thinks Trump’s doing just fine without a surrogate strategy.
“Their numbers do not go down,” said Dana Perino, former press secretary in the Bush White House and FOX News co-host. “They have a lot of negative press and the support is the same place for him as when he was elected. They’re doing something right.”