Stephanie Grisham agrees that people who oppose Donald Trump, including Republicans, are 'scum'

The doomed position of Trump's press secretary

News Analysis: ''This president is used to the show with him being the showman, and that show used to be reality television,' expert says of Donald Trump

John T. Bennett
Washington
@BennettJohnT
Tuesday 07 April 2020 20:06
comments

New White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has made his first big decision, sending Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham back to the East Wing. His next decision, however, could determine the path of his tenure working for a mercurial president.

Ms Grisham's appointment was more about loyalty than fit.

She became close to the First Lady Melania Trump while serving as her communications director and press secretary. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders departed as Mr Trump's ever-loyal top spokeswoman after a turbulent tenure during which press relations soured to new lows, the president had a decision to make.

He could have looked outside his circle and brought in a communications professional, likely with high-level government experience, to deal with reporters. Or he could have looked inside his ever-shrinking inner circle of political bomb-throwers for someone he felt he could trust – even if those on what was a very short list lacked the background and policy knowledge to quickly get up to speed pushing his message.

He chose the former. But Ms Grisham admittedly lacked the level of knowledge about policy and how it's made in Washington that even Ms Sanders and Sean Spicer developed. Whether she ever did was a mystery.

That's because she never held a formal press briefing and her television appearances were mostly on Fox News, a mostly Trump-cheering network that allowed her to sound more like a presidential campaign surrogate than a White House press secretary. She never grew into the full job description, and it does not appear Mr Trump pushed her to do so.

"In many ways, the relatively low profile of the departing White House press secretary is a reminder that President Trump really is his own chief communicator," said Michael Steel, a former press secretary for then-House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "And he seems to like it that way, so it's unlikely it will change."

'Reality television'

Enter Mr Meadows.

The conservative former North Carolina House member was brought on recently to replace another former conservative House member from the Carolinas: Mick Mulvaney from neighboring South Carolina.

Like Ms Grisham, Mr Mulvaney had a rocky tenure. Unlike Ms Grisham, the former acting chief of staff never fully earned the president's trust.

Rebuilding the press office and communications shop will give Mr Meadows a chance to get off on the right foot with the fickle Mr Trump. But like Mr Mulvaney, Mr Trump's two other chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and John Kelly, were unable to put together messaging organizations or strategies that pleased the boss.

That's because, "this president is used to the show with him being the showman, and that show used to be reality television," said Martha Kumar of the Presidential Transition Project, who studies presidential relations with the press. "Any press person coming into the White House needs to be aware of that."

As Mr Trump reportedly has okayed Kayleigh McEnany, who has been a top spokeswoman for his re-election campaign, taking over as press secretary, Ms Kumar offered some advice to her and Mr Meadows.

"President Trump's view is that he wants a White House staff where there is some measure of chaos," she said. "Where others see chaos, Trump sees energy."

Alyssa Farah, a senior Defence Department spokeswoman and former press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence, is poised to become the next White House strategic communications director. And Hope Hicks, who once was communications director, has returned in another role -- but has been involved in messaging.

One Republican source who worked on Capitol Hill noted "it's not unusual on Capitol Hill for a new chief of staff to prefer a press secretary that he or she knows is loyal." That's what Mr Meadows knows, bringing some logic to the shake up.

'His own press secretary'

But Ms Farah and Ms McEnany should beware.

"It looks like there will be three people running press and messaging," Ms Kumar said. "But there really are four because the president really sees himself as his own press secretary and communications director."

"We saw that with Stephanie Grisham," Ms Kumar added. "Where she was like other press secretaries was she did just what the boss asked – it's just that this president wanted different things."

Though Ms Grisham interacted with plenty of reporters daily, including during her coronavirus self-quarantine period, she was not a big presence around the West Wing.

In some ways, the image of her legacy won't be a picture of her during a particularly historic or combative press briefings – but the blue nameplate with the white letters on her often-closed West Wing office door.

"That reflected her in-person meetings with reporters, or the lack of them. In-person contacts with reporters is just not something she did," Ms Kumar said. "Her relationships were on the phone and over email. That tends not to serve a press secretary well because you need an image of personal contact in a group setting. Press secretaries are often measured by the briefings they held.

"That gives them a chance to show their area of policy expertise," she said. "Stephanie never did that, so there was a major question about just what her role was inside the administration. Showing that expertise gives a press secretary a measure of respect among the press corps, especially when that person knows more than the reporters."

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