Controlling the message coming out of Donald Trump’s White House may seem like an impossible task — and it’s one that many are hesitant to try right now.
The White House has gone without a full-time communications director since Trump was sworn in last month, and although chief of staff Reince Priebus is spearheading a robust effort to fill the position, his overtures to several Republican communications professionals have been met with disinterest, according to a half dozen sources with knowledge of the situation. At least two candidates have turned down the job, a position normally coveted by Washington political operatives, according to another source familiar with the conversations.
Trump’s unusual involvement in crafting his own message — and his insistence on doing so from his perch in the West Wing — poses a challenge for any aide whose remit it would be to shape the narrative arc of his administration.
“There is a list of candidates, but I can see why people aren’t interested. It’s a tough job,” said a senior administration official.
Those difficulties are compounded by Trump’s management style: The president is known to pit his senior aides against each other, creating rivalries and divisions among his staff that have already impacted the rollout of a major policy initiative. Steve Bannon and Steven Miller, the president’s chief strategist and senior adviser, managed to keep the president’s executive order on immigration so closely held that it not only erroneously banned green-card holders from entering the country, but also left members of the cabinet — responsible for defending the policy — scrambling to respond.
“The communications director job in the White House has always functioned as the strategic planning job, understanding the necessity of building and maintaining public approval for the president’s policies, and when you look at the complete and total chaos emanating from the White House on a number of issues, it’s clear they have no strategic planning function,” said Steve Schmidt, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House who ran John McCain’s presidential campaign.
Bannon has also privately dispatched one of his aides, Julia Hahn, to push stories into the news — in effect directing a communications shop that, at least in the administration’s early days, has been operating on a parallel track.
Despite the unique challenges posed by the Trump administration — and perhaps because of them — White House veterans say the sort of strategic thinking normally provided by a communications director remains critical.
“Even with the challenges he uniquely presents, there still is a need for long-range thinking and planning,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for George W. Bush. “There still is room for long-term planning and for rollouts and initiatives, even if it’s tougher. I would never give up on this function, it’s too important.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The job has been vacant since Jason Miller, the Trump campaign’s communications director who was initially tapped to fill the post, pulled out prior to the inauguration following allegations of an affair with another transition official.
Communications out of the White House during the first two weeks of the Trump presidency have been rocky, and Spicer, who has been moonlighting as communications director while serving simultaneously as the press secretary, has been continuously under siege.
His experience has made clear that taking on what could arguably be considered the premier communications job in the world comes with considerable risks. It’s no fun to be skewered on national television, something both Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president and a frequent spokeswoman for the administration, have now experienced after energetically defending Trump. The comedienne Melissa McCarthy cuttingly lampooned Spicer last weekend on “Saturday Night Live,” portraying him as a belligerent spokesman with little regard for the facts.
Conway has added some communications responsibilities to her portfolio, though she has had her own share of troubles, generating headlines with a claim that the administration offers “alternative facts” and feuding publicly with CNN over whether the network canceled one of her appearances.
The administration’s response to court orders rebuking Trump’s executive order on immigration has also been erratic. The White House on Friday blasted a district court judge’s decision upholding the ban, calling it “outrageous.” The language was quickly dialed back in a revised release sent out roughly 10 minutes later, but the following morning, Trump was on Twitter mocking the “so-called” judge and decrying his “ridiculous” ruling.
Fleischer says the president has a knack for driving a message — he just needs help pulling it off.
Trump is “somebody who understands fanfare, echo chambers, and amplification. I would hope that after the immigration announcement, he’s learned the advantage of bringing additional people in the loop,” said Fleischer.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.