Fighting a virtual one-man messaging battle for his border wall, President Donald Trump is growing frustrated that he doesn’t have more public defenders in his shutdown fight with Congressional Democrats.
Even by the standards of a president who prefers to deliver his own message rather than outsource it to surrogates, Trump is putting an unusually personal stamp on the White House’s public relations campaign to win more than $5 billion in border wall funding.
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As the government shutdown dragged into its third week, with both sides conceding that little progress has been made in negotiations, the president announced Monday that he will make the fight the subject of his first Oval Office address to the nation on Tuesday evening. The White House also said that Trump will also travel to the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday in what is guaranteed to be a media spectacle.
But a president who demands constant praise has a diminishing number of public defenders these days. The result is a manic, one-man public-relations effort to sell the shutdown that has left some White House officials scrambling to catch up. Trump has griped to associates that hasn’t seen enough administration officials on the airwaves defending him during the shutdown fight, according to three people close to the president. He is also angry that he didn’t get more backup for his mid-December decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.
So the president is increasingly stepping into the spotlight himself. Last Wednesday, he convened a cabinet meeting that metamorphosed into a 90-minute press conference during which he called his $5.6 billion wall funding request from Congress “a small price to pay for total security on the Southern border.” The following day, he made his first-ever appearance in the White House briefing room — flanked by a bevy of immigration hawks — to press the case further before a startled press corps. And on Friday, he held a press conference in the Rose Garden to announce he was considering declaring a national emergency in order build the wall.
“I have never had so much support, as I have in the last week, over my stance for border security, for border control and for, frankly, the wall or the barrier,” he told reporters. “I have never had this much support.”
Privately, however, he was thinking something different. “He’s sitting there going, ‘Why the fuck isn’t there anybody saying good stuff about me? Why is there nobody on TV that’s defending me?” said a former senior administration official.
The president has expressed increasing frustration with his press shop that he doesn’t see more of his defenders on television — a recurrent issue about which Trump has brooded in the past. Some of that frustration has focused on White House communications director Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive who joined the White House in July on the recommendation of his friend and longtime Fox News host Sean Hannity. Hannity touted Shine to Trump as an antidote to the torrent of negative media coverage the president receives, according to two sources familiar with the conversations, and suffered from an outsized expectation on the part of the president that Shine could stem the tide.
“He thought that as part of bringing Bill Shine in that he would get better coverage — that he would be able to solve some of these dilemmas,” said a Republican close to the White House. “Bill is working hard, but he is not a miracle worker. He’s been working to solve some of that but it’s a constant battle.”
A White House official pushed back on the notion that the president is frustrated with the diminishing number of defenders he sees on the airwaves, “We’re doing our very best to communicate with our surrogates and get the message out. The White House and the president always enjoy looking at the screen and seeing our surrogates and our friends on camera,” the official said.
Trump and Pence met on Monday with 20 outside surrogates about the shutdown and did the same before the Christmas holiday, according to a second White House official. Aides continue to show Trump television clips featuring outside advisers offering praise on cable news shows. And Trump has urged political allies like Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, and David Bossie, his former deputy campaign manager, to keep up their on-air appearances. But he has cited the diminishing praise from within his own ranks, wondering why more of the people who work for him are not stepping up to defend him on the television airwaves.
There are notable exceptions — including Trump’s new acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who has hit several Sunday talk shows in recent weeks. But much of the backup for his position is coming from conservative Republicans in Congress, not from within his own administration’s ranks.
Aggravating the problem is the departure of a handful of administration officials who were once mainstays on the airwaves. They include the former director of legislative affairs, Marc Short, and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who stepped down at the end of the year. Short’s replacement, Shahira Knight, is not a regular on the television news programs, while Haley’s successor, Heather Nauert — tapped for the job in part because of her comfort in front of the cameras — has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
Meanwhile the White House’s once-daily televised press briefing — a reliable forum for the administration to broadcast its message — has also all but ceased. (Trump officials complained that reporters, especially star television correspondents, used the briefings to grandstand.)
The White House press office is pushing out fresh faces to carry the president’s message. Shine dialed up his former colleagues at Fox News last week, pressing them to conduct an interview with Vice President Mike Pence — who wound up appearing on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show.
On Sunday, Mulvaney appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as well as Jake Tapper’s CNN show, while White House press secretary Sarah Sanders sat down for a rare television interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace (and endured a widely-noted grilling about Trump’s most dubious factual claims).
Largely, however, the president, is fending for himself in a media offensive that will culminate with Tuesday’s primetime address — one that the major television networks have not yet agreed to carry — and with his Thursday trip to the southern border.
Trump’s dictation of his own communications effort can sometimes produce curious results, leaving his aides seemingly flat-footed. During Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, for instance, Trump puzzled observers by placing a life-sized, Game of Thrones inspired poster in the middle of the table during. The poster — which featured a stern-looking Trump and the slogan “Sanctions Are Coming” — touted economic sanctions the administration had already imposed on Iran two months earlier. The president made no reference to it, leaving its relevance — if any — far from clear.
Asked about it in an interview Thursday on Fox & Friends, White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway wasn’t able to provide a clear answer.
“Well I’ll let it speak for itself,” Conway said. “That’s certainly what people focused on, but we need border security.”