The initial reaction might be, So what’s new here? But recent days, in the wake of Trump being stricken with coronavirus, have highlighted just how the lurching improvisation that is a familiar phenomenon around Trump has entered a different phase. The professionals around the president aren’t merely laboring to contain and channel the disruptive politician they work for. Very often they are amplifying the chaos.
That’s in part because, as his first term comes to a close, the professionals around Trump are not all that professional. It is now the exception in key staff and Cabinet posts to have people whose experience would be commensurate with that of people who have typically held those jobs in previous administrations of both parties. This major weakness has been revealing itself in a barrage of minor errors that summon Casey Stengel’s incredulous question about the 1962 New York Mets: Can’t anybody here play this game?
There have been prominent misspellings in official White House statements (the pharmaceutical company whose treatment Trump took is Regeneron, not Regeron. Trump bungled the name of a well-known Republican senator (that’s James Inhofe, not Imhofe) in a video message. Communications Director Alyssa Farah did much the same in a television interview, repeatedly mispronouncing the name of Trump’s physician (it’s Dr. Sean Conley, with two syllables, not Connelly with three).
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow on Wednesday contradicted each other in public remarks on whether a recuperating, but still possibly infectious Trump had been in the Oval Office the day before. (Kudlow thought he had, Meadows was apparently right that on that day Trump hadn’t.)
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s briefings are largely dismissed as mere entertainment by reporters, not a source of reliable information or, on frequent occasions, any information at all. Last week she didn’t know at her own briefing that presidential counselor Hope Hicks, to whom she had been exposed, had tested positive for the virus the night before. After Farah publicly promised to release the numbers of White House aides infected with coronavirus, a few hours later McEnany said they wouldn’t provide those numbers for “privacy” reasons.
It’s easy to dismiss these flubs as minor communications errors, but communicating with the public is one of the most important things White Houses do. And this one has made such a hash of things that it has compounded the very real substantive problems confronting an administration that has more of its fair share of those as well.
This phenomenon goes beyond matters relating to Trump’s personal health or politics to matters of foreign policy on which previous administrations have previously operated on the assumption that, when the world is watching, it is critical to speak with clear purpose and precision.