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Trump’s PR Meltdown

September 30, 2019
Trump’s PR Meltdown
(Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)

If the facts are against you, argue the law.

If the law is against you, argue the facts.

If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.

― Carl Sandburg

Hi Republicans.

Long time, no talk. You and I used to do a fair amount of work together. But since the party took a collective hit off of a crack pipe and nominated a morally bankrupt reality show host to be president, I haven’t been around much.

Because if there’s one thing you guys don’t need, it’s help on the PR front. Trump is a communications genius! He’s his own press secretary! Look at all those Twitter followers, amirite?

And yet, I can’t help but think the old comms strategy could use a tune up. So I thought I’d send along a few thoughts:

  • Stop putting Rudy Giuliani on television. He’s drunk. Or maybe just addled? I don’t know—but it doesn’t matter because he’s going to get you all sent to prison by reading text messages from State Department officials out loud on Laura Ingraham’s show. Go to the zoo. Find an adorable penguin. Put that little guy on instead.
  • I see you have talking points. Great! Now all you have to do is not send them directly to Nancy Pelosi’s office. Oops. But let’s turn this negative into a positive by using it as an opportunity to come up with talking points that don’t insult the intelligence of wax fruit. Why don’t you try, “What the president did was unquestionably wrong and we apologize for abusing the power of the presidency for his personal political gain. It won’t happen again.” That’s not hard, is it?
  • It’s great that you’re going on offense against Joe and Hunter Biden, that’s the right move. Republicans are the anti-corruption party, right? We cannot have an elected official occupying one of the highest offices in the land while simultaneously having his children profit from his office. So maybe—just spitballing here—you should have Ivanka, Jared, Eric, and Don Jr. shut down their White House money-printing machine for a couple of months so people forget that this president is the least credible person in the world to make that argument about the Bidens.
  • Buy Jim Jordan a suit jacket. I know you’re running low on people willing to publicly debase themselves for the party, but television is a visual medium. And if Jordan is going to let Jake Tapper put him in a figure-four leg lock on national TV, he should at least look like his wife hasn’t kicked him out of the house and he’s sleeping on his office couch.

  • Bench Kevin McCarthy altogether. He may have many gifts as a political leader, but he is really not good at going on TV.

  • Someone tell Lindsey Graham that his “hearsay” talking point is a bad hill to die on. The argument that the whistleblower didn’t hear things first hand isn’t exculpatory. It’s actually just another good reason to investigate the whistleblower’s claims and talk to the primary sources.
  • Evergreen advice: Take Trump’s phone, smash it with a hammer, and then hit any pieces leftover with BleachBit. Whatever it takes to make him to STOP. TWEETING.
  • Tweeting things like:

  • Maybe the MAGAheads like this stuff, but your job is to keep all of the marginal Republican office-holders onboard so that you don’t risk a stampede on the off-chance that some of them decide that they can’t not do the right thing. And tweets like that are only going to push the marginal R’s away from Trump. Witness Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, responding with:

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, this playbook worked for us the first time around with that whole Russia thing. A deft combination of whataboutism, obfuscation, preemptive framing, and misdirection is all we need to pull this off.”

Here’s the problem: Unlike the two-volume, 430-page Mueller report, the whistleblower report is 9 pages long. The central allegation is clear-cut and easy to understand. And it has already been proven true with the release of the call summary between Trump and Ukraine’s president.

You can try to spin the facts and fall back on process-arguments—but the battlespace is much smaller and the tempo is much faster than the Mueller wars. Most people will be able to read the report and anyone who doesn’t can clearly understand what happened: The president was acting like a mafia don by talking about the kind of “help” he could give Ukraine and then asking for “favors.” I mean, even Chris Christie understands that this is a problem: In an attempt to pre-spin all of this before the call summary was released, Christie insisted that it would only be bad for Trump if he said something blatantly extortive. Like, “do me a favor.”

Oops. Again.

Also, the Democrats and the media may be on to you. They’ve seen you run this play before and they’ve made adjustments. And the American people aren’t so sure anymore, either. In fact, a majority of them now back the impeachment inquiry. Including nearly 1-in-4 Republicans.

When it comes to crisis communications there’s a strategy that most professional comms people live by: Tell the truth. Tell it all. Tell it fast.

It’s good advice for most people. But some clients are constitutionally incapable of it. Trump is one of them. Obviously. For him, telling the whole truth, quickly, was never really going to be an option.

Listening to some of you grumbling privately over the last 10 days, I can tell that you are frustrated by the president right now. I understand that frustration. But you shouldn’t be surprised.

On the stump, one of Trump’s favorite bits is to read a poem called “The Snake.” He does this a lot. Here’s one of his performances:

If you don’t want to watch it, I’ll just give you the punchline:

I saved you, cried the woman. And you’ve bitten me, heavens why?

You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die.

Oh, shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin.

You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.

Trump, of course, tells this story as a warning about the perceived dangers of immigration. Evidently Republicans never understood that it was also about them.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.