Steve Kearney: Among the Bushes

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Like many reality shows, the rolling White House crisis seems to have no beginning or end.  It just is.  But it’s instructive to remember where the current, more intense series of episodes began.

May 10, 2017.  There was yet another crisis to manage.  White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was furious at the Washington Post – outraged by its reporting on the aftermath of President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.

He demanded and received a clarification from the Post: “Spicer huddled with his staff among bushes near television sets on the White House grounds, not ‘in the bushes,’ as the story originally stated.”

So now it was clear that he was among, not in, the bushes near the White House.  The rest of the story remained as originally reported.

This silly correction illustrates two truths about crisis management:

  1. Credibility matters.  After months of dissembling about everything from crowd sizes to wiretapping, Spicer was left with only enough credibility to alter coverage of his location relative to bushes – but not much else.  The rest of his conversation with the Post’s editors apparently failed to persuade.
  2. Facts matter.  Spicer was unable to change the underlying story about Trump’s abrupt firing of Comey, because his tale that the President was merely acting on the advice of the Deputy Attorney General was not true or even believable.  Trump made that clear in an interview two days later.

In the following days, the press reported that Trump was apoplectic at the failure of his communications staff to tell a coherent story from the eye of the Comey storm.  But due largely to his own willingness to spread falsehoods and undercut his staff, neither Trump nor Spicer had the credibility to fight back. 

The Administration is still reeling weeks later, as the White House has found itself grappling with more crises: Trump carelessly boasting his way into leaking highly classified intelligence to his Russian visitors; Trump attempting to talk Comey out of investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; and First Son-In-Law Jared Kushner attempting to set up a “back channel” with the Russian government during the Trump transition.  In each case, the White initially delivered denials or justifications that strained credibility, and Trump later contradicted his staff.

The fundamentals of crisis management are simple.  Be prepared.  Have control of your organization – operations and communications.  Understand and share the facts.  Tell your own story first.  Make sure it’s the truth.  Identify and use credible spokespeople.  Repeat.

Maryland’s former U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate 94-6 a few weeks ago, could be a credible voice – having recovered some of the credibility that his association with Trump squandered with the appointment of a Special Counsel.  National Security Advisor Gen. HR McMaster has long been a well-respected military leader.  Both have had their reputations damaged – and have been devalued as spokesmen – by President Trump’s belated sharing of facts that contradicted the messages they were enlisted to deliver.

They both learned an old lesson: if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

The truth is that, regardless of who is delivering the talking points – or what they’re saying to clean up after the fact – the “downward spiral” noted by the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will continue unabated until the Trump Administration begins to instill some discipline.  Traveling abroad just provided a temporary diversion.

It’s a different time – and it certainly doesn’t seem likely that team Trump will suddenly discover the skills and temperament required to succeed.  But five months into his first term, President Bill Clinton found himself sitting at 37% job approval.  He realized his team – which was far more experienced than the current administration – didn’t really understand Washington.  And they were stuck in a seemingly endless stream of self-inflicted crises (although none involved foreign collusion).

Clinton brought in an old Washington hand, David Gergen, who previously worked for Republicans, including serving as Reagan’s communications director.  The administration gained control, starting by telling its own story and began effectively driving an agenda and narrative for years – until it was sidetracked, again, by an idiotic crisis of the President’s own making. 

For now, in the absence of credibility or respect for facts, the Trump Administration will keep bouncing from crisis to crisis – relegated to fishing for corrections at the margins of negative stories. 

The appointment of a well-respected Special Counsel should the administration attempt to talk about something else, while former FBI Director Robert Mueller quietly investigates. 

But the initial signs are not good.  Recent hyperbolic press statements have been compared to North Korea’s Dear Leader and Baghdad Bob.  If Trump keeps tweeting and Spicey keeps spinning wildly – without adding any adults who are willing to push back on the craziness – it seems unlikely that they can crawl back out of the bushes to communicate a coherent agenda. 

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