An Audience of One
“President Trump announced his Supreme Court pick on the national TV today. When he entered the room the crowd greeted him with a standing ovation which lasted a full 15 minutes…everyone was smiling. Everyone was happy….and no one, no one, was sad.”
~ Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, Saturday Live, February 2017
“I love the president…here’s what I can tell you about the president. He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met. OK? I’ve seen this guy throw a dead spiral through a tire. I’ve seen him at Madison Square Garden with a top coat on, he’s standing in the key and he’s hitting foul shots and swishing them. Ok? He sinks three foot putts. I don’t see this guy as a guy who’s ever under siege…the president’s a winner and what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna do a lot of winning.”
~ Anthony Scaramucci as himself, White House Briefing Room, July 2017
Six months and one day into the administration of Donald Trump, the president replaced Sean Spicer, the press secretary who was satirized by a comedienne on Saturday Night Live, with a new director of communications who will be able to play himself on the same show.
Anthony Scaramucci is a hedge fund millionaire with no experience in political communications, but a boldly expressed love for the president, a wardrobe from the prop closet of Goodfellas and the mannerisms of Chazz Palminteri in full character. Somewhere in the Hamptons, casting for the next season of SNL began the moment Scaramucci blew a kiss to the White House press corps as he left the briefing room at the end of his first news conference.
Mr. Scaramucci is a highly successful, wealthy, well-educated, smart man with manners, out-sized ambition, and a sense of what he wants to accomplish in his new job, but his hiring confirms the worst instincts of his new boss and according to multiple reports, those closest to the president think the choice is a bad move. Some of the top reporters in Washington, D.C. have confirmed the Scaramucci hire was opposed by Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and strategist Steve Bannon. The presidential advisers who think hiring Scaramucci is a good idea include Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the quiet power couple at the scene of almost every Trump catastrophe.
It is possible to spend an entire thirty to forty year career at the upper reaches of the federal government and never be called to testify before Congress to explain your meetings with representatives of a hostile foreign government, or hire a defense attorney to protect yourself against potential criminal prosecution. Mr. Kusher has been forced to do both in less than seven months. His judgement is in question.
Scaramucci may turn out to be the most talented communications strategist to ever work in Washington, D.C. but the odds are against him, because of the product he is selling. President Trump has presided over six months of absolute chaos since taking office. He has failed to follow through on any of his campaign promises with the exception of the appointment of a conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court which should have been a lay-up for any Republican president with a Republican Senate.
The United States is losing standing in the world. Global leaders are openly working around us in the hope that four years from now we will replace Trump with a president capable of rational thought and conventional behavior. At home, the president’s approval rating is in the 30’s. In Congress, the Republican majority is flailing, in part because there is no consistent leadership from the White House. And of course, the president is under investigation by a special counsel looking into ties between his 2016 campaign and the Russian government.
In the middle of this multi-strada crisis, the president’s instinct is not to change the message, or the approach, it is to hire someone to sell the losing strategy more aggressively. It is one thing to sell a product or an idea to a customer, but it is another to actually deliver on the promise. Trump, throughout his career, has often made the sale, but has notoriously failed to deliver.
The Trump administration has no policy ideas, only slogans. The president wants to be praised and congratulated from morning until night. At Scaramucci’s first news conference, he identified the problem he has been hired to address. He said the president is a great man of great accomplishment, but there is a disconnect between that fact and the news media perception of him. His job, Scaramucci said, is to close the gap. To de-escalate the tension. This is a mis-read of reality, because the news media reflects back what it sees. If the last six months had been one success after another, you would have heard about it by now.
Think for a moment about what is missing in the Trump administration and where the president places his energy each day. It is all focused on Trump himself and whether he is getting credit for a mirage of accomplishments only he sees.
What Is Missing?
Trump and Republicans in Congress chose as their first major policy initiative the repeal of the Affordable Care Act they disparagingly call Obamacare. Over the last seven years Republican elected officials(with the exception of governors who see its value) have campaigned in favor of full repeal. They never thought they would actually have a chance to do it, because they never expected to control both Houses of Congress and the White House at the same time. They thought they had a cheap wedge issue for which they would never have to take responsibility.
If President Trump were a leader on this issue he could put a win on the board. The first thing he would have to do is re-frame the debate by arguing for the repair of Obamacare, not its full repeal. Even the most minor change to the national healthcare law is in essence a major reform so repealers could claim victory by making substantive changes without hurting their constituents. For the president to allow his party to hang itself on the promise of repeal proves he lacks a basic political skill: The ability to envision a compromise.
A president concerned about leadership would include Democrats to try to find a bi-partisan solution. A president concerned about leadership would use his office to make an argument directly to the American people. He would speak to the nation, he would address a joint session of Congress, he would travel the country putting pressure on opponents and giving a boost to his allies.
But Trump is not concerned with what a final healthcare bill actually looks like. Over the last several weeks he has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not understand the issue and has made no effort to understand it. He only wants a bill that has “healthcare” in its title so he can sign it and claim credit. He will not work with Democrats and he is willing to punish Republicans who should naturally be on his side. He is willing to shoot his own soldiers in the quest for personal glory.
On the world stage, we are on the brink of crisis with North Korea and in the Middle East. We have strained relationships with many of our long time allies. Here again, the president has shown no willingness to engage constructively. Trump’s impulse on international affairs is toward chest thumping, threats, and isolation. Under Trump, the American presidency is missing in action.
Where Does the Energy Go?
What does consume the president’s time and attention?
In a failed attempt to impose a policy agenda on the president, his staff made an honorable effort to focus White House attention on American manufacturing. The past week was branded “Made in America” week. The president refused to cooperate.
He spent much of the last seven days defending his family from accusations related to the Russia investigation. This included a New York Times interview in which he criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former FBI Director James Comey, the current deputy attorney general and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is now serving as a special counsel looking into the Russia matter. He suggested he might fire Mueller if that investigation strays toward his family. This may not be obstruction of justice, but it certainly helps explain the president’s state of mind on the issue.
It was also revealed the president has asked for legal guidance on his powers to pardon. He wants to know if he can pardon his family, or even himself, if the Mueller investigation leads to criminal charges or impeachment proceedings. The White House tried to deny the president is thinking preemptively, but Saturday morning Trump was on Twitter confirming his belief that he has the “complete power to pardon.” Why is this so important to him if he has “done nothing wrong” as he has often asserted?
Recent events show President Trump’s top item of business every day is the management of his own image. He is protecting himself, his family members, and his business interests. The energy of the administration is so mis-directed there is little evidence anyone in the White House is paying any attention to the business of the nation. This is dangerous, because it means the administration is ill-prepared for a crisis.
The list of particular failures is long while the list of corrective actions is short. This is what makes the shake-up in the White House communications staff so troubling. While the communications function is important when it comes to advancing the president’s agenda, it is low on the list of priorities when it comes to helping the American people improve their lives.
Facing crises on multiple fronts, President Trump chose to put his focus on the White House team dedicated to advancing his personal brand over all other concerns. Mr. Scaramucci’s first performance before the cameras was accordingly filled with effusive praise of the president, because Trump believes if you say something often enough people start to believe it. Trump does not need a communications director capable of advancing an agenda, because he has none. He needs a huckster.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised to fight for coal miners, auto workers, steel workers, victims of acts of violence committed by illegal immigrants, and against the federal government in Washington. Every thing he touched was going to turn to gold. We were going to win so much we were going to get tired of winning. As president, he has put all those promises aside in favor of helping himself.