President Trump’s administration has been trying to keep the focus on its policy priorities, but these efforts have fallen prey to outside distractions, inconsistent White House messaging and the president’s own tweets.
But the president’s volatile Twitter feed can occasionally serve the White House well, particularly when a Trump tweet draws attention away from unflattering developments in other areas.
“His tweets are a double-edged sword,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. “Sure, they distract from his agenda, but they also distract from his agenda. What are [we] talking about, Mika or Medicaid cuts? What’s more politically defensible? That’s an open question.”
Feehery was referring to a series of Trump tweets beginning on June 29 that attacked MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski for her looks and intelligence. The president’s fixation on Brzezinski, whom he called “dumb as a rock Mika,” came as Senate Republicans scrambled to scrape together 50 votes for a healthcare overhaul.
Trump’s Twitter feud with the MSNBC host set off a round of criticism from both sides of the aisle and unnerved even some of his closest conservative allies.
Patrick Meirick, director of the Political Communication Center at the University of Oklahoma, noted that political pundits remain split on whether Trump’s tangents ultimately help or harm him.
“Some think he is completely incompetent and can’t help stepping on his message. Others think he is an evil genius whose tweets continually distract the public and news media from more substantive stories,” Meirick said. “Either way, it is clear that his social media activity is taking up a lot of oxygen, as it has almost two years now.”
Trump’s Twitter addiction hasn’t been the only obstacle to his administration’s inability to stay on message, however.
The special counsel’s investigation into whether associates of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials to hack and distribute Democratic emails during the presidential race has repeatedly intruded on Trump’s successful moments.
The White House has labored to sharpen its messaging strategy since Trump returned from his successful overseas debut in late May. Prior to his departure, the president had stumbled through weeks of bad press, beginning with his removal of former FBI Director James Comey on May 9 and ending with the appointment of Robert Mueller to take over the Russia investigation as special counsel just days before Trump left for Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s pivot to policy began on June 5 with the launch of “Infrastructure Week,” the first in a series of issue-themed weeks designed to offer structure for an administration that had weathered criticism for its aimlessness early in the Trump presidency.
Infrastructure Week came amid a period of stagnation on Capitol Hill and sparked optimism among some Republicans that the president could find a way to navigate the endless Russia controversy. The week included a trip to Ohio, a speech at Department of Transportation headquarters and the announcement of new initiatives, such as a push to privatize the country’s air traffic control system.
But Russia-related intrigue and the president’s own words soon overshadowed Infrastructure Week in what has become a pattern for each of the White House’s attempts to stay focused on its agenda.
But former FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress during Infrastructure Week about the circumstances that led to his firing by Trump. The resulting news coverage pushed the White House’s plans into the background.
The following week, the White House planned another trip and a series of events designed to promote “Workforce Development Week,” which centered on Trump’s ideas for promoting apprenticeships and creating jobs.
Instead, Washington was consumed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony before Congress, during which he denied concealing any additional meetings with the Russian ambassador and affirmed his confidence in Trump following Comey’s allegations.
During the “Technology Week” that followed, Trump touched off a new wave of Comey-related headlines by admitting, via Twitter, that he had never recorded his conversations with the former FBI director. His statement came more than a month after he warned Comey to “hope” that the White House did not have “tapes” of their conversations about Trump’s former national security adviser Gen. Mike Flynn, and then left reporters dangling by refusing to confirm or deny the existence of those tapes.
And although Trump traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to promote technological advances in the agricultural sector, the campaign-style rally he held there during Technology Week spawned a number of unrelated headlines, such as his claim that he wouldn’t want a “poor person” in charge of his economic policy.
The Senate’s battle over healthcare and Trump’s tweets about Brzezinski overshadowed the following week’s policy theme and threatened to send the president overseas for his second foreign trip under a cloud of scrutiny at home.
“Energy Week” drew little attention to Trump’s energy policies, even when he vowed to build a petroleum pipe to Mexico underneath his promised border wall.
Trump’s inability to focus consistently on policy has placed members of his administration on perpetual defense.
“Through it all, Trump has been Trump,” Meirick said. “His camp has offered promises to become more presidential, and there have been flashes of that, but Trump’s brash, take-no-prisoners persona that endeared him to his followers has remained intact.”