By Brian J. Karem
The year ended on a bang for President Donald Trump and began with hope heretofore unseen in his administration when on the last day of 2018 Trump surprised the nation with a short speech about the government shutdown and answered questions from the press pool inside the Oval Office.
“I am here on the last day of the year and I want to meet with the Democrats and Republicans, whoever will meet with me I’ll be here all day,” he began. “As my good friend Mike Huckabee says, ‘come let us reason together.’”
Trump, while continuing his plea for a border wall said compromise was a sign of leadership, making a deal for the American people, “All of the American people,” outweighed any singular interest and he added, “We all, Democrats and Republicans want and need border security. That much we agree on. And we all want to see our government open for business. When I ran on the promise of draining the swamp, this is the type of activity people are tired of - from all of us.”
The press pool, which had gathered on short noticed was visibly stunned at the president’s speech.
Out maneuvered by the president’s reason, on New Year’s Day Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell visited the Oval Office and after two hours, all of them appeared in a hastily called news conference in which Trump and Pelosi declared they had compromised and were victorious in getting what they wanted. “My fellow Americans we came together in a spirit of cooperation and showed they we can get more done when we work together than when he fight each other,” Trump announced. Pelosi, echoing the president said, “The road ahead is unclear. There are still major differences between us, but when we all work together for the common good anything is possible.”
Of course, the previous dispatch is pure fiction. In the words of President Trump, it is “Fake News.”
The president didn’t call reporters into his office on the last day of the year. He cowardly tweeted out that he was in the Oval Office. At the time there was no Marine posted at the door of the West Wing as is customary when the president is in his office. The press door was locked. No emails were returned. No one answered a knock to the press room door. A view through several windows in the West Wing showed no one at home. He may have been in the Oval later that day (and indeed was according to several reliable sources), but according to the missing Marine and a staff member who shall remain nameless, he wasn’t in the Oval at the moment he sent out his tweet. He lied - again.
When I tweeted out an abbreviated portion of that observation along with the picture of the empty Marine post, White House staff pushed back - a couple of hours later and claimed the president - minutes after the tweet - was indeed hard at work in the West Wing, and me and my “ilk” were in error.
Let the right and left arguments proceed.
But if the president was in the Oval Office, how easy would it have been to gather the press pool and show the American public a president hard at work? Not hard at all. The staff didn’t do it. They failed their president if he was indeed in the Oval Office - which he obviously wasn’t because they didn’t show us him working, the press doors were locked and the Marine wasn’t at his post.
On New Year’s Day the president let it be known through a statement that he would meet with Congressional leaders the following day. It came in an email statement from Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There was no pool spray. No news conference. No briefing.
It is often a good thing, in this day and age, that the president’s communication staff is unavailable. The lies come so frequently and so haphazardly that unless you’re a parent to a dozen unruly teens you may not be able to handle the cacophony of caterwauling coming from the professionals in the West Wing.
It begins and ends with a president that Mitt Romney, several outgoing generals and most of the departed White House officials from this administration have described as immoral, unfit for office and a degenerate liar. Richard Nixon was a stain on the presidency. Trump is a bloodletting caused by a gut shot.
The President of the United States has arguably currently reduced the power of the most important elected official on the planet to that of a grumpy old man tweeting out insults to enemies real and mostly imagined. “General McChrystal got fired like a dog by Obama. Last assignment a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth. Hillary lover!” He tweeted on New Year’s Day.
He also tweeted in all caps, “HAPPY NEW YEAR TO EVERYONE, INCLUDING THE HATERS AND THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA! 2019 WILL BE A FANTASTIC YEAR FOR THOSE NOT SUFFERING FROM TRUMP DERANGEMENT SYNDROME. JUST CALM DOWN AND ENJOY THE RIDE, GREAT THINGS ARE HAPPENING FOR OUR COUNTRY.”
Meanwhile the communications staff cannot control let alone assist in crafting the message. I have seen and have empathy for those in the administration who work hard and long to craft a message only to have the president undermine it mere minutes after someone speaks. The president has long said he is his best press representative. That’s not saying a whole lot coming from a president who has had three open news conferences, all but eliminated press briefings, and shrunk the importance of his office down to nothing more than a demagogue precinct captain with delusions of grandeur.
The man who had it right in communications was Anthony Scaramucci. The Mooch had a communications plan most members of the media appreciated, and one that likely would’ve put the president in a better light than he currently enjoys. The Mooch endorsed greater outreach to the press, more informed surrogates and a cooperative - in as much is possible - venture with the media. He did not see us as “Fake” or as an “enemy of the people,” while acknowledging there were problems on both sides of the fence. He also said, “I think the vitriol in the tweets will ease when the president feels a comfort level with those supporting his policies.” Mooch never claimed he could disarm the president’s twitter finger, but claimed things would be different with less animosity.
Those sentiments alone give me pause to consider “what could have been,” had the Mooch lasted more than 11 days.
The president hasn’t been seen publicly in God knows how long. The daily briefings are reduced to a monthly briefing - emphasis on “brief” and most communications remain one-way with this administration. Phone calls are not returned. Emails are not returned. Misinformation and lies are often spread. Through the tweets and through proclamations and statements issued via email the president is attempting to maintain as little contact with the general public as he possibly can. This lack of communication further divides the country, angers our allies and allows our enemies in the international arena to take centerstage as we retreat under the banner of “Nationalism” - the most abused, misunderstood and ridiculous term a president could use.
The president, while trying to ratchet down on information escaping the administration is inadvertently creating a pressure cooker that will only blow up in his face.
Often the communication staff seems befuddled, angry or petulant when questioned - when of course they aren’t grossly uninformed - like the day when John Bennett from Roll Call asked about the Posse Comitatus Act and was told, “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll get back to you about that Hakuna Matata thing later.” When I asked the same staffer a similar question I was quizzed about whether or not the Posse Comitatus act was a law, or a “guideline” or something else.
The first line of communications with any president are those stalwart and often over-worked people who man the president’s communications staff.
In the past professionals like Larry Speakes and Mike McCurry were the face of respective administrations that had to endure a variety of scandals. The Reagan and the Clinton years were not without their controversy. But the communication offices stayed open. The lines of communication between the public and the president - long seen as vital to the effective operation of government - were not shutdown even during government shutdowns. Both Speakes and McCurry understand the value of communications especially during the most difficult of times.
Trump doesn’t get it or doesn’t want to. Protocol, the rule of law, rules of civility and charity are long gone.
What we are left with is a petulant and angry man who begins 2019 increasingly isolated, under scrutiny presiding over a government shutdown that could’ve easily been avoided; one that he owns all by himself and one that could hobble his remaining two years in office before the 2020 election.
What is the path to re-election for President Donald Trump? The first two years of this four year ride have been disruptive, mostly unproductive and very divisive. His staff isn’t helping him to ameliorate the problems either.
It seems as if the only people still employed by this White House are those who like the ride, those who hate it but can’t get off of it, and those too ignorant or befuddled to know what is going on - much like the president they serve.
Once there was an anonymous op-ed writer who told the New York Times not to worry - a soft coup had taken place and there were adults in the room making sure everyone will be safe.
I found no comfort when the op-ed surfaced. It was frightening on many levels.
Now, you have to wonder with so many people fleeing the administration if the op-ed writer and those who think similarly are left trying to hold this administration together with bailing wire, spit and feigning obsequiousness before the great and mighty OZ?
I am one that always likes to begin the year with Hope - for all of us. I eat the black-eyed-peas (And sometimes listen to the music of The Black Eyed Peas - “I Gotta Feeling”) and try to approach the world with a sense of wonder and amusement.
I hope after the president meets with Congressional leaders, the first few paragraphs I wrote today will become more than wishful thinking. No one wants the country to fail.
But facts being as they are, I am grounded in the knowledge that our president is a liar, is corrupt, is petulant and angry and those around him are made miserable by him, by portions of the public, and feel embattled every day they go to work. The nation is restless, the divide between the left and right at times seems like a chasm and The Redskins didn’t make the playoffs again.
No government is sustainable under such circumstances.
The Marine missing from his post in front of the White House isn’t just a fact. The whole situation is a metaphor for this administration.
We’ve got two more years of this before our next general election. Buckle up.