For the past few months the issue at the forefront of everybody’s mind has been the coronavirus, and for good reason. But drowned out by the boisterous ripple effects of COVID were many important stories that would have been considered newsworthy in a more traditional environment. Some stories that would have gotten more coverage during a different time include President Obama’s endorsement of Joe Biden, an update on the trial of the Pittsburgh massacre shooter, and the Pentagon’s formal recognition that UFOs exist.
Also among the recent stories not getting their due attention is the recent shakeup within President Donald Trump’s inner circle. In theory, movement within the administration shouldn’t be too surprising as this particular administration has been subject to frequent turnover. (Absent, of course, the tremendous consistency with which Kellyanne Conway and the Kushner family have been able to stay relevant in the administration.)
But in this instance, the shakeup was worthy of discussion. The reason, quite simply, is that the new staff is the most effective unit the president has had since his inauguration, particularly in the realm of communications.
Chief of Staff Reconfiguration
Let’s start from the top. With former Representative Mark Meadows as his new chief of staff, the president has picked not only a loyalist but also a veteran from the Hill, with the requisite relationships and skills necessary to perpetuate the president’s agenda.
In contrast, take a look at those who previously held this position since Trump took office. First was Reince Priebus who presided over chaos. Priebus’ struggles weren’t all that surprising given his lack of actual government experience. Priebus made a career of rubbing elbows with powerful Republicans but never had an inside look at a government office until landing this job. Luckily for Republicans, having a GOP-controlled Senate allowed the administration to accomplish some of its landmark goals, nonetheless.
Looking to restore order to White House, the president replaced Priebus with General John Kelly, who certainly had the ability to be effective but, because he disagreed with the president on a number of critically important issues, was not.
Meadows’ direct predecessor, Mick Mulvaney, got off to a hot start because he had what the others lacked. With a proven track record of supporting the Trump agenda and familiarity with the legislature after having served in Congress, Mulvaney looked promising. On paper, his résumé actually looked similar to that of Meadows’. But eventually, Mulvaney fizzled in the eyes of the president, particularly because of his poor performance during the impeachment inquiry.
Barring an impeachment-level mistake, then, Meadows should be poised to succeed. He, too, is “widely respected by his former colleagues in Congress,” but he also appears to have the acumen and necessary attributes his predecessors’ failures demonstrated one needs to succeed in the position.
Worth noting is that with Meadows came his trusted and universally respected aide, Ben Williamson. The reception by media and politicos upon learning of his promotion is a testament to just how effective Williamson has been on the D.C. scene. He is clearly a valuable new asset to team Trump.
Also in the chief of staff’s office was the promotion of Dan Scavino to deputy chief of staff. Scavino has been with the administration since its inception as its “social media wizard.” He has spearheaded and developed the Trump communications shop. Giving him a bigger role in the administration should be an effective way to keep the president’s messaging at the forefront of everything it does.
At the podium, the Meadows-era brought in Kayleigh McEnany as Press Secretary. McEnany is supremely well-educated—having attended Harvard, Georgetown, and Oxford. It’s true that “unlike most of her predecessors as White House Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany didn’t come to the job with a background as a reporter or a career press secretary,” but the fact that “she has never had a role in government” may just be what makes her a strong asset and an effective communicator for this administration. Indeed, the president is known for his love of taking his message directly to the American people through social media. McEnany has come out of the gate effectively and consistently using her government social media account to disseminate eye-grabbing tweets in support of the president to her large following. Kayleigh was trending on Twitter last week after giving her first White House press briefing. The spectacle was praised by her predecessors, politicians, and members of the media.
We can contrast this to Sean Spicer who was literally “mocked” out of the role. Or Stephanie Grisham who was so quiet in the job that it feels as though she hardly did it. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who presided over the briefing room during the more stable portions of the Mulvaney era, was also uniquely suited to serve this administration due to her willingness to tackle the media head-on. A trademark of the administration. McEnany can learn a lot from what Sanders did and how she did it.
Acute observers are left to daydream of what he could have done with the current and more ideal cast of characters, had they been on his team since the beginning.
In filling the roles of chief of staff and press secretary, the president seems to have been slowly fine-tuning and improving his selections for these jobs, until finally culminating in this star-studded group. Not only are they stars in terms of their qualifications, but they are stars because they are the glove that fits the hand of this administration and its specific needs. Just one day after this new team was instituted, even CNN was forced to comment on the efficacy with which the president was now communicating his message.
Another addition made was Alyssa Farrah. Farrah has been in the administration since its earliest days having been the press secretary for Vice President Pence and the Pentagon. Her bona fides have been on display for keen observers to see for quite some time, and it leaves one wondering why it took so long for her to be given a communications role in the Office of the President. She, too, has held a long list of posts in politics and media and has been given an instrumental job that prior to her arrival seemingly was held by—well—nobody, actually. Maybe this was the role Anthony Scaramucci held for eleven days, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
Not only did this revamping of the communications department bring in a group of new faces, but it also brought back some familiar ones. Hope Hicks, who previously served as the president’s director of communications, has been brought back to the White House in an effort to improve public perception of the president; a necessity for the administration as America tumultuously rides toward an election. Hicks has long been lauded within the Trump circuit, and since “she’s not known to have any strong political views or pet projects,” she is singularly focused on helping the president communicate with the American people. An obviously crucial aspect toward his ultimate goal of being “the most transparent president in history.”
With the administration’s anchor, Kellyanne Conway (who also frequents the airwaves,) still in hand, this is clearly the strongest unit the President has had around him in the communications department.
The Changing Dynamics of a Campaign in Lockdown
But while these seem to be the best people, sadly it seems as though they have been assembled at the worst time. With the Corona crisis sweeping through a beleaguered nation, it is hard to see how this unit will be able to go on offense with the president’s message. On the contrary, they will have to be on defense, constantly explaining how the president did not exacerbate the effects of the pandemic. Going on offense isn’t possible in this situation because they can’t advertise anything related to the COVID issue as a win. It is associated with hardship in the eyes of Americans and it is likely to remain so.
Think of it this way: imagine the president, at one of his infamous campaign rallies, giving a speech where he said: “I cut taxes, I skewered regulations, and only X number of people died during the corona pandemic.” It wouldn’t work rhetorically, even if the president did mitigate the number of deaths. It’s an inherently losing issue.
At first glance, it would seem that the president would have been better served by keeping these superstars outside the administration so that they—McEnany in particular—could continue to be hard at work for his campaign.
But like the rest of the world, the campaign world has come to a screeching halt, and has been reduced to media-buys and teleconferences. Maybe Trump’s logic is that these talents would be wasted on the campaign at this moment. Perhaps Trump brought them to the White House now, not because this is when they could be the most effective in government, but precisely because the situation has made it so they cannot be effective anywhere else.
It’s also possible that Trump is abiding by the old sports adage that defense wins championships. I suppose it’s possible that it was with this athletic metaphor in mind that the president brought in the A-team now, when he needs people to guard the basket, not score in it.
Still, one can’t help but feel that this core unit could have accomplished a great deal during a time that wasn’t completely dominated by a global health emergency. President Trump is running on “Promises Made Promises Kept” precisely because whether you like his policies or not he has delivered on many of his original campaign promises. He was able to do so despite the often distracting personnel in his administration. Acute observers are left to daydream of what he could have done with the current and more ideal cast of characters, had they been on his team since the beginning.
The coronavirus-news cycle likely will take us to Election Day and so if this new team ever does get the chance to go on offense, it will only be if the president wins another term. In November, America gets to decide whether or not they want to find out what this group is capable of doing during better days.
The Best People at the Worst Time