Politics

Is there such a thing as too much Trump?

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“Go run the country,” Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy told President Donald Trump, wrapping up a 47-minute phone interview with the leader of the free world, which ended with Trump wishing a happy birthday to co-host Ainsley Earhardt’s father.

They had, it seemed, run out of new ground to cover.

After all, it had been only a few hours since Fox News viewers heard from the president, who had also called in for an 11 p.m. interview with Fox News host Shannon Bream Wednesday night.

And Trump didn’t exactly go dark before his late-night caller, or disappear from view after his morning chat. On Thursday night, he spoke to supporters at a “MAGA” rally in Erie, Pennsylvania. After his Fox & Friends interview, he addressed reporters in the Oval Office, noting, among other things, that he has no plans to fire his chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, despite his comments criticizing the decision to hike interest rates.

All of this occurred before his meeting with Kanye West, who told the president in a ten-minute Oval Office soliloquy that Trump “is on his hero’s journey right now” and that “he might not have thought he’d have a crazy mother-fucker like [me]” supporting him.

Earlier in the week, Trump gave an extended interview in the Oval Office to New York Magazine reporter Olivia Nuzzi, who described her surreal experience as a “private press conference,” during which the levers of the government seemed to pause as Trump, the vice president and his secretary of state, among others, gathered to convince her that there was nothing wrong with Trump’s relationship with his chief of staff.

Already lost in the shuffle was Trump’s surprise Q&A he staged with his departing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Tuesday, where both took questions from the press to again, assure the public that there was nothing to see here except bonhomie.

Trump has never been one to cede the spotlight, but this week more than ever, the president appears to be virtually unavoidable for comment, spending most of his working hours either speaking in front of, or taking questions from, the press.

The ever-present president is part of a new media strategy, current and former White House officials said, driven by the president’s natural impulses, that the communications department has sought to institute for months. It is part of a move away from the set pieces of the daily briefing, which takes staff hours to prepare for and which Trump has never liked, the formal presidential press conference, and the stiff, sit down interviews on a straight news program like 60 Minutes — all tools that previous presidents have relied on to get their message out to supporters and detractors alike.

Instead, Trump is leaning into his preferred mode of communication: In staccato bursts of availability, he talks about the issues he wants to address, in his own words, for as long as he feels like talking, addressing, for the most part, the sole audience of his base.

It’s also strategy that appears more accessible than it really is: it allows Trump to dictate the terms of the interactions with the press, rather than vice versa.

Current and former aides attribute the strategy to Trump, himself, but also credit communications director Bill Shine with, as one former aide put it, “putting him in better situations and thinking through the production value.” They also credit the the successful confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the renegotiation of a new NAFTA trade deal for Trump’s upbeat mood.

Presidents in the past have been criticized for being overexposed at different moments in their terms. In the spring of 2009, for example, President Barack Obama was seemingly everywhere while trying to sell his economic agenda, hosting a town hall meeting on CNN, before popping up on late night television with Jay Leno, and then talking about out his college basketball picks on ESPN.

But even the former president’s critics said in the end, it worked for him, just as it seems to work for Trump. “President’s never get overexposed,” said Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign aide. “The more they’re out there, the more they’re engaging the specific electorate. It’s oxygen to their supporters.”

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders agreed. “The President is always the best messenger,” she said. “It’s a great thing when the American people get to hear directly from him.”

Other White House officials accused the press of wanting it both ways: complaining when there’s not enough access, and accusing the president of overexposure when there seems to be too much.

“You are right the press just wants to complain,” Sanders added in an email. “It’s either not enough or it’s too much. I think the bigger story is that the President is only one person and he has more energy and stamina than all the press combined! They can’t keep up!”

There are differences, however, in Obama’s media tour and Trump’s seeming omnipresence, that contrast how they view the tool of the communications office, and what audience they are trying to target. Trump does not appear to be tying his interviews and media appearances to any policy he is trying to sell — rather, the press and the spotlight appear to be the ends in and of themselves.

“Presidential communications are typically integrated with some discipline into the governing program,” said Robert Bauer, who served as White House counsel in the Obama administration. “Political capital is supposed to be dispensed with some care. The impression you have here is that he has an urgent need to be visible and control the public space. But as a governing matter, that is problematic because rather than the presidential communications serving government purposes, it’s the opposite.”

And while Obama’s media tours were driven by a desire to speak to the entire country by putting the president in front of different audiences, Trump’s is more about blotting out the sun with his base.

“Most of the stuff he’s doing is exposure to one audience and one audience alone and that is his base,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former communications director in the Obama White House, who noted that it doesn’t appear to be backfiring. “I haven’t seen anything to suggest they want to see less of him.”

While many of Trump’s media hits are driven by impulse and muscle memory — in his pre-political life he developed a symbiotic relationship with the New York tabloids –
former aides said it all makes sense right now if the White House is viewing the midterms as a base turnout election that is framed as an up or down vote on Trump, himself.

“In order to do that,” said one former White House official, “he needs to make sure people are thinking about him on Election Day. The best way to do that is more exposure to him in the markets that his base watches.”

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