Stepping on the message: Trump can’t stop generating bad news amid the good

Whether by impulse or strategy, the president often undermines favorable developments


The monthly jobs report was another positive one, but President Donald Trump couldn't wait for its release. So an hour or so before the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the figures on June 1, he tweeted that he was "looking forward" to seeing the numbers. 

The tweet caused ripples in financial markets and set off a boomerang effect in the news media — a common reaction during the Trump era. Instead of the news being solely about the employment data, many stories focused on whether Trump had violated federal disclosure rules by hinting that the report would be positive. 

Once again, Trump had accomplished a very Trumpian thing: Through his actions, he had pushed a potentially positive news story aside by generating a new, attention-generating, negative one. 

It's an axiom of politics that it's best to avoid stepping on your own message. Public relations pros often say that silence is golden if the news is going your way. But Trump, who regularly flouts presidential norms, has repeatedly stood this notion on its head, often achieving the political equivalent of reverse engineering lemonade into lemons. 

For example, on the eve of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — a historic meeting in Singapore that could lead to a breakthrough on nuclear disarmament — Trump seemed to raise doubts . . . about himself. 

"I don't think I have to prepare very much," he said during an Oval Office meeting last week. The comment sparked a new round of stories about whether Trump was up to the complex negotiations. 

In December, the president stumped for Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama whose candidacy was beset by allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Rather than let voters focus on Moore and his support of him, Trump added another tweet responding to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who had called for Trump's resignation after several women accused him of sexual misconduct. "Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand . . . who would come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump," he tweeted. 

Result: Less Moore, more stories about Trump's alleged history of sexual harassment. 

The month before, the president held a White House ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers, who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. During the event, Trump riffed on his derisive nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. "We have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago," he said. "They call her Pocahontas." Once again, Trump's attack on Warren became the story, not the feel-good recognition of military heroes. 

Trump pre-empted his own message so many times last year that USA Today compiled the instances in a lengthy timeline. His frequent disruptions of himself have made "Infrastructure Week" — the White House's oft-invoked thematic message — into a kind of punchline about public-relations futility. 

Given the pace of the news cycle involving scandal and tumult under Trump, it's hard enough for his communications shop to push out a positive message without fearing that the boss will step on it. It's gotten to the point that some political communicators suspect the Trump White House is writing up a "Don'ts" section of a Communications 101 syllabus. Even Republicans say they're flummoxed by Trump's "message management." 

"It is impossible for the White House staff to perform their best when the president is constantly saying the wrong thing on Twitter," wrote Ed Rogers, a former deputy to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, in The Washington Post in December. "Trump would certainly continue to make his share of gaffes if he didn't tweet, but those routine mistakes can be managed and explained away by traditional partisan political spin and damage control. His tweets, however, are like blood splatter on the wall at a crime scene. They tell a story that can't be ignored." 

In an interview June 7, however, Rogers said he has begun to spy some method in Trump's message madness. 

Yes, Trump's premature tweet before the jobs report kicked up the disclosure flap, Rogers said, but it also made people focus more on the underlying numbers than if he'd said nothing. 

"I've been so wrong about Trump for so long that I'm snakebit," he said. "There were so many times that I thought of this tweet or that comment, 'Well, he's done it this time' . . . and then I'm wrong. We're in Trump World, where the laws of political physics don't apply." 

On the other hand, Trump likes to play it both ways. After the news media covers his statements, he offers an ironic but predictable complaint: The news media isn't focusing on the good news. 

The president and his supporters have complained that reporters have ignored what Trump describes as his administration's achievements, such as gains in the stock market, strong economic growth and cuts in federal regulations. 

But Trump also keeps highlighting his own bad news — in the process giving reporters another reason to highlight them. On June 7, Trump coupled his leadership on trade and North Korea with an attack on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. "Isn't it Ironic?" Trump tweeted. "Getting ready to go to the G-7 in Canada to fight for our country on Trade (we have the worst trade deals ever made), then off to Singapore to meet with North Korea & the Nuclear Problem . . . But back home we still have the 13 Angry Democrats pushing the Witch Hunt!" 

Trump has brought up "witch hunts" repeatedly, sometimes pre-empting positive news. In early May, when the unemployment rate dipped below 4 percent for the first time in years, he mixed cheerleading with a reminder that Mueller continues to investigate him. "JUST OUT: 3.9% Unemployment. 4% is Broken! In the meantime, WITCH HUNT!," read his tweet. 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn't return a request for comment. 

Jennifer Palmieri, former Obama White House director of communications and director of communications for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, said it's not always wrong to mix "a little bad with the good news," as Trump does. Doing so can make the news media — which tends to focus on bad news — pay more attention to favorable developments. 

The trick is finding the right combination of good and bad, and it's not always clear that Trump gets the balance right, she said. 

"I just think Trump is undisciplined," Palmieri said. "I am sure it is very frustrating to work in his communications operation. But they knew what they were getting into when they went to work there."


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