Trump Communications Shake-Up May Start With New Role for Spicer

  • Shift could produce new tumult for White House beset by probes
  • New spokesman may be hired, though discussions aren’t final

White House Said to Consider Hiring New Press Secretary

President Donald Trump is making preparations to shake up his communications team at a moment when a disciplined public message is paramount, adding to the tumult surrounding the investigations of his White House.

Trump’s most visible spokesman, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, may move into a more senior role focused on strategy that will take him away from the briefing room podium -- and Trump may hire a new press secretary, two people familiar with the discussions said.

Sean Spicer

Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg

The administration is already moving away from using a single spokesman. Spicer’s deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has in recent weeks more frequently replaced him in briefings. Trump’s lawyers, Marc Kasowitz and Jay Sekulow, and a spokesman for his legal team, Mark Corallo, speak for the president on the widening investigations of his White House.

Compounding the problem for the White House is the fact that the only message discipline Trump follows is the 140-character limit on his Twitter feed, contributing to a sense that Spicer never had a firm grip on his job.

At the same time, the White House has sought to shift the political conversation to ground more favorable to Trump through coordinated week-long campaigns organized around themes such as infrastructure and apprenticeships. A special election Tuesday to fill the Georgia congressional seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price could upset the narrative again. 

Administration officials have had preliminary talks with candidates to fill both Spicer’s job and the vacant position of communications director. Trump presents a unique challenge for anyone who speaks on his behalf, as he frequently turns to his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account to take positions or make remarks without prior notice to subordinates.

Hard Sell

The circumstances make it harder to fill what is normally regarded as one of the plum jobs in communications. Only 6 percent of public relations professionals said they would take the post of Trump press secretary if it were offered to them, according to a survey of 900 people in the field conducted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Relations at the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.

The discussions on reorganizing the White House communications operation are still preliminary and no final decision has been made, the people familiar with the matter said. Mike Dubke, who had been the communications director for less than three months, resigned in May, and since then, Spicer has juggled both briefings and overall communications strategy, leaving him feeling overtaxed.

The president has both praised and castigated Spicer for his performances at the briefing room podium but has never told him he was in danger of being fired.

Politico reported on Monday that David Martosko, U.S. political editor of DailyMail.com, interviewed for the communications director job. Three people familiar with the situation said that wasn’t accurate. It’s not clear if he’s being considered for any White House job.

“We have sought input from many people as we look to expand our communications operation,” deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who herself has been rumored as a replacement for Spicer, said in a statement. “As he did in the beginning, Sean Spicer is managing both the communications and press office.”

Off-Camera Briefings

In recent weeks, a number of Spicer’s question-and-answer sessions with reporters have been conducted off-camera, including on Monday. Earlier in the administration, the briefings were a cable news ratings hit, often broadcast live in their entirety.

His performances inspired a scathing parody by “Saturday Night Live,” with actress Melissa McCarthy delivering a gender-bending portrayal of the press secretary as a short, shrill buffoon.

Spicer often found himself caught between striving for the respect of a deeply skeptical White House press corps, who demanded that he be as clear and transparent as possible, and his erratic boss and his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account.

Spicer had stumbles of his own. He caused an uproar in April when he claimed that Adolf Hitler, who gassed millions of Jews, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Spicer was attempting to condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, and tried to clarify that he understood Hitler had brought Jews “into the Holocaust centers.” He later apologized.

Comey Firing

Spicer has weathered intense speculation about his job security, which peaked after Trump’s May 9 firing of FBI Director James Comey. The announcement was made without any supporting communications plan, such as arranging surrogates who would defend the decision on cable television.

Spicer avoided on-the-record interviews about the firing for hours. The Washington Post published a story that said he “spent several minutes hidden in the bushes” outside the White House before agreeing to brief gathered reporters. Spicer later expressed frustration that other reporters who had observed the scene didn’t come to his defense and explain that he was talking with someone on a sidewalk hemmed by shrubbery, not literally hiding in bushes.

The next day, Spicer was absent from the briefing room podium, giving rise to more speculation about his job. He was fulfilling long-scheduled Navy reserve duty requirements, but much of the external blame for the Comey fiasco fell on him, for failing to have a strategic sense of the extent of the fallout.

Spicer had asserted that Trump’s decision was based on a recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. That message was torpedoed two days later when Trump said in an interview with NBC News that he intended to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s advice.

During Trump’s first foreign trip as president, Spicer garnered sympathy even from some White House critics after he was left out of the president’s entourage for a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Spicer, a practicing Catholic, had purchased rosaries for friends and family, hoping for a papal blessing.

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