Donald Trump’s unique, chaos theory of presidential communications is completely upending Washington, leaving lawmakers, government officials and lobbyists stunned that they are appreciative to a single leader’s notions, not to mention the uncertainty about his true thoughts and intentions.
Unlike more traditional administrations, in which a White House focuses on one big agenda item at a time and rallies all resources to incite public and congressional support for it, Trump has shown no sign of abandoning his off-the-cuff, indiscriminate approach to tweeting. And in a town that relies on information flow, Trump’s unpredictable style threatens to paralyze Washington’s power brokers.
4 DIFFERENT SUBJECTS
On Tuesday, 1/3 Trump tweeted on four different subjects before lunch, but it was his surprising rebuke to House Republicans over their first vote to gut their own ethics oversight office — undercutting senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s defense of the lawmakers’ move in a TV interview moments earlier — that drove the news cycle and allowed the president-elect to claim credit when the caucus reversed course.
GONE IN 48 HOURS
Those tweets faded in the 48 hours afterward, as Trump blasted out 140-character missives questioning the certainty of the nation’s top intelligence officials (Wednesday) and threatening to punish Toyota with a major tax should it follow through on building a plant in Mexico (Thursday).
ALWAYS IN MOTION
“He is constantly in motion and in command of the pace and tempo of the political news environment. That is something that his opponents have yet to figure out,” said Kevin Madden, a GOP communications strategist in Washington who advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “The sheer volume of activity and coverage around him works to his advantage. Trump understands one important dynamic: In a world where there is a wealth of information, there is always a poverty of attention, and he has this ability to generate four or five story lines a day. In the face of that, how can his opponents break through on even one of them? He is always in control.”
Trump has benefit throughout his unconventional presidential campaign. By forcing editors and news producers with a finite amount of ink or airtime to choose what to cover and what to ignore, Trump succeeded in bombing the nation’s collective consciousness with his massive presence and unrelenting will.
“A lot of the time he creates chaos in order to get where he wants to go. It’s often planned chaos,” said Louise Sunshine, a longtime Trump Organization executive who worked for him for 15 years. “His style is to throw all the cards up in the air and let them land. He likes to see people scramble and be on their toes.”
THEORY OF COMMUNICATION
While it’s been a imprint of meetings at Trump Tower, this communications theory has never been tested at the White House. “There are challenges and opportunities with this approach,” said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant in Washington who oversaw communications for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign last year. “The challenge is by being spontaneous; it’s hard to build an echo chamber of surrogates and supporters to consistently drive home the message. The opportunity is that Trump is able to connect with the American people in an authentic and real way that other recent presidents haven’t been able to. When he tweets, people understand it’s actually coming from him.”
“A lot of our allies are very nervous about whether they can count on us,” said Trent Lott, a former Republican senator, now a lobbyist in Washington. “And a lot of our enemies now feel like they have a way in.”
He added: “The tweets unnerve me. I see how you can use that to go around and over the traditional media and how many people get his tweets. But it unnerves me because I’m kind of old school. I don’t put anything in writing that I don’t know who is going to see it.”
Lott said Washington tended to get much more done when people weren’t embarrassed. “I prefer to communicate with a wink and nod,” Lott continued. “I am an advocate of smoke-filled back rooms — I was very much an advocate over the years, the old conference committee meetings. That’s where I used to tell my colleagues, ‘We’ll fix it there.’”
Another prominent lobbyist said it is difficult to manage expectations of clients because no one truly understands where the power centers are going to be, and whether the promise of a Trump aide actually counts. This person said there were times where the operation behaved like a typical political operation — asking lobbyists and tech groups for names of people to hire in Cabinet agencies, for example, and telling conservative activist groups that the administration’s orthodoxy will largely hew to standard Republican principles.
But then, the lobbyist said, “You see him say something, and you go, wait, what is he doing there?”
Just Thursday morning, Trump’s appointed White House press secretary, Sean Spicer — who said the day before that he finds out what his boss tweets by checking his feed like everyone else — shot down a Wall Street Journal report that the administration was planning to pare back the nation’s intelligence operation. The report had been sourced to Trump “advisers” and people “familiar with [his] planning.”
The mixed messages and shifting realities of Trump world, whether the byproduct of Trump’s unconventional approach to communications or a more systemic dysfunction, have left some allies abiding by a cardinal rule of news reporting — getting their information and double- or even triple-sourcing.