A former White House press secretary under George W. Bush has some advice for Donald Trump’s communications office: Focus on policy, and salvage whatever credibility is left to salvage.
“There is no such thing as alternative facts,” said Scott McClellan, who served as the public face of Bush’s administration from 2003 to 2006. “Credibility is your most important asset. And especially in the first 100 days, you want to keep a laser-like focus on the agenda.”
That means less feuding with the news media, especially over trivial facts like the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, said McClellan, who now oversees communications for Seattle University.
“(Trump) has a remarkable knack for grabbing headlines with less than 140 characters,” McClellan said, referring to the president’s habit of ranting on Twitter. “He knows how to play that game. To use a Bush-ism, he’s not to be misunderestimated.”
But McClellan suspects the Trump administration’s success in manipulating the national news media will be short-lived.
“They’re determined not to let the New York Times or the Washington Post or the major networks set the narrative,” he said. “But, you know, every president realizes they can’t control the narrative in the long run.”
McClellan is no stranger to criticizing the president. Two years after resigning from his White House post, he published a scathing tell-all about his former boss and colleagues, titled, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.”
In the book, which sent shockwaves through the nation’s capital, McClellan accused Bush and his advisers of relying on “propaganda” to sell the Iraq War, which he called “a serious strategic blunder.”
Now, McClellan sees parallels between his former boss and the new commander-in-chief. Like Bush, he said, Trump is operating in a “permanent campaign mode,” further propelling the country into “all-out partisan warfare.”
He said news outlets share some of the blame for this political polarization, because of their “bias toward conflict and controversy,” and because they “cover governing like they would cover a campaign.”
While he was press secretary, McClellan occasionally circumvented the White House press corps by coordinating small-town presidential appearances designed to generate local news coverage. The Obama administration employed similar tactics, and seized on social media as a new way to speak directly to constituents.
“I think the Obama administration, like our administration, put a heavy emphasis on local media,” McClellan said.
Trump’s own use of social media, specifically his personal Twitter account, is unprecedented for a U.S. commander-in-chief. He and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, also have taken advantage of a Balkanized media landscape that enables Americans to select news outlets tailored to mirror their political views.
A prime example is Breitbart News, a far-right website once headed by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon. A number of Breitbart staffers are expected to start new jobs in the West Wing, and the website regularly has writers at Spicer’s daily press briefings.
McClellan said it’s a positive step to allow a wider array of news outlets into press briefings, but only if Spicer avoids favoritism when fielding questions from a roomful of clamoring reporters.
He also said Spicer has a responsibility not to lie on behalf the president.
During his first press briefing on Jan. 21, Spicer repeated Trump’s demonstrably false claim that the turnout at his inauguration was bigger than Obama’s turnout in 2008. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway later explained that Spicer had provided “alternative facts.”
“Not once did President Bush come to me and say, at a press briefing, that we’re going to say something that’s not true,” said McClellan, who worked for Bush when he was governor of Texas and followed him to Washington, D.C.
“It’s interesting because Spicer does not have a long, established relationship with President Trump,” McClellan said.
McClellan said reporters should brush off Trump’s frequent condemnations, or they risk distracting from important policy issues.
“Keep in mind that a president is not defined by his relationship with the press,” he said. “He’s defined by the results he achieves.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.