Conquering the media circuit entails a certain level of stamina, fortitude and improvisation. And to stay on-message, a lot of prep work.
But if there’s one thing the Trump administration has proven successful at, it’s the ability to go off-script, sometimes intentionally—but mostly not.
Typically, it takes a strong executive or chief of staff to right the PR ship, to keep the message on track, to showcase priorities and amplify legislative victories. However, Trump has shown little interest in course corrections. His many surrogates continue to make lavish, falsified claims, report incorrect statistics and mislead the public through a media campaign of misdirection and informational carpet bombing.
From a distance, Trump wants to stay above the fray and delegate tasks to his aides, who then report back with action items. But from the confines of the Oval Office and his Mar-a-Lago estate, Trump has allowed his spokespeople to derail his brand and accelerate the failure of his young administration.
So are Bannon, Conway, Kushner, Ivanka, Miller, Priebus and Spicer simply talking heads stage-managed behind the scenes, or is Trump knowingly pushing them into the den of media wolves to see who survives and see who’s loyal?
Out for Blood
It’s no secret that Democrats on the hill smell blood in the water each time Republicans stumble. The so-called “Muslim Ban” was nixed by courts in a matter of hours. The followup a few weeks later met the same judicial fate.
It’s logical for the opposition party to act on these policy failures, but one of the more intriguing elements of Trump’s America is how quickly the media has pounced on the weaknesses at the heart of these shortcomings.
With the exclusion, but not always, of Fox News, which has largely defended many of Trump’s early actions, the rest of the 24/7 mainstream has derided the administration’s focus on controversial issues. Trump is, at the moment, seemingly disinterested in addressing core national concerns that could potentially garner more support, both publicly and in the halls of Congress.
The Twitterverse has likewise been up in arms, enabling organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the Women’s March in Washington to generate millions of dollars in new donations.
But while the many forces orbiting around Trump continue to lurk, predicting even more failures, the president’s closest aides have steadfastly stood by their boss, each in their own individual ways.
Compared to previous administrations, the lack of cohesion and comradery among Trump associates is glaring, and many insiders have likened the atmosphere within key meetings as nothing less than chaos. Following Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council on April 5, reporters mentioned that Bannon was quoted as saying he’s ready for a “gunfight” with other internal team members closest to Trump, with a particular aim at Jared Kushner, whose ascension of late has come at the cost of surrogates like Bannon and Stephen Miller.
And with only so much influence on the president to go around, the knives are coming out. The question, though, isn’t necessarily which of Trump’s aides will be victorious, but more so who will Trump willingly allow to falter, and who will he crown as a rightful executor of his agenda.
Gamesmanship on Display
Press Secretary Sean Spicer is the primary face of the administration with his morning press briefings, while Bannon, Miller and Kushner typically work behind the scenes as architects of policy—policy that so far has little support.
The short interval of time when Stephen Miller entered the public foray in defense of the travel ban, he was quickly patted on the back by Trump for showing spine in the face of a widespread media firestorm and large-scale protests. Since then, he has been shoveled back behind the curtains, with many insiders pinning the consecutive failures of the travel ban on Miller.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has been on the hot seat since day one and has, from the outside, struggled to stake his claim or effectively shepherd legislative victories that Trump so desperately needs at this point.
Meanwhile, Kellyanne Conway has regularly been the primetime go-to representative for the administration despite the highs and lows she’s experienced since taking on the role. Though celebrated for Trump’s campaign comeback, she has since fallen under heavy media attack for blatantly lying to news anchors on national TV. Subsequent appearances by Conway have resulted in the spreading of even more falsehoods, so much so that many news outlets have now banned her from appearing on their TV shows.
Though Trump’s daughter Ivanka is new to the scene in an official capacity, she too will soon come under heavier media scrutiny, and her presence is by default shouldering out other Trump associates’ influence.
Trump’s aides have various levels of administrative experience and are acting, sometimes, in accordance to their own ideological beliefs—and in the case of Bannon and Miller, not necessarily for the benefit of the administration as a whole. How long this sort of relationship stands is anyone’s guess.
What’s more important is how Trump’s surrogates view themselves as the holders of their own destinies, whereas Trump sees them merely as pawns on a chessboard. At some point, someone’s value or loyalty is going to run its course, making them dispensable to the larger game at play.
Trump’s overarching position is metaphorically but also physically one from the seat of a throne. If it requires sacrificing his associates to media criticism in exchange for his avoidance of public scrutiny, then it means he can only be so responsible for what his administration says and does, which is a fairly dangerous assessment of presidential power.
For a man so imbibed by media attention, Trump’s lack of control over the media circus must be infuriating. But more concerning is Trump’s personal inattention to the fundamental duties of the office, his laissez faire attitude toward delegation. In light of a quick military strike on Syria, lagging poll numbers and successive staff shakeups, Trump is yearning for momentum.
Whichever Trump official can deliver on this momentum will surely be rewarded, likely at the expense of ineffectual aides. All the while, the press and the public will be awaiting the next scoop, the next fallout, the next feast to devour.
Trump’s thirst for success is analogous to the media’s hunger for Trumpian failures, which fuels each revolution of the carnivorous political machine.
Who will survive?