Just when it was looking like Donald Trump’s young yet troubled presidency was anxiously finding its footing—what with an initially praised (even by Democrats) missile attack on a Syrian air base last Thursday night, Monday’s congratulatory Rose Garden swearing-in of Associate Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, and a welcome respite in recent days from crazy presidential tweets—a darker reality has intruded.
A widely read story in the Washington political trade journal Politico—based largely on reporter Shane Goldmacher’s interviews with a half dozen anonymous leakers on the White House staff—lifted the rock on a slimy underside of poisonous rivalries, self-serving revelations, and other behavior not calculated to help the former reality television star govern effectively.
It was left to freshly minted White House communications director Mike Dubke, a creature of the Republican Party establishment and an associate of erstwhile Never-Trumper Karl Rove, to defend a wide-ranging meeting that he called last week to formulate a strategy to sell a positive narrative of Trump’s first 100 days.
The story—published on Day 81 of a presidency that, according to a tradition dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term, will receive a passing or failing grade from the media at the 100-day mark on April 29—quoted various White House aides as mocking and trashing Dubke’s get-together of 40-odd staffers in a conference room and spilling out into a hallway of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“It was a brainstorming session and I really wish they had spoken up in the room so that we could have had an open and honest conversation,” a clearly exasperated Dubke told Politico about the leakers. “It is unproductive adjudicating internal discussions through the media.”
Reading between the lines, political professionals in the nation’s capital and beyond said the story exposed perhaps insurmountable problems that are plaguing not just the messaging of the Trump White House, but the substance of his presidency.
Former Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod—who saw his share of White House infighting played out in the media, but never this early, never this prolific, and never this vicious—emailed The Daily Beast: “Can Humpty Dubke put WH comms together again? Weird that his blue sky meetings were leaked, which goes to larger problem: In the absence of a governing philosophy or experience, there is not a West Wing. There is a NW Wing and a SW Wing—many wings, all fighting for primacy, and leaking to score points on the others. It is very destructive.”
A veteran Republican communications strategist, who said the 46-year-old Dubke is generally considered “highly capable and perfectly within his skill set to run an effective communications operation out of the White House,” told The Daily Beast that Dubke, however, appears to be laboring under a misimpression.
“He’s assuming that the people working there believe that Trump is a great leader of men and women and they’re doing everything they can for him to be successful. That’s the underlying fallacy. There is no cohesion, there is no central harmonizing tenet. People are really there to get what they want for their own greater good.”
For a junior or mid-level operative, a resumé-burnishing stint in the White House often leads to a lucrative political consulting or corporate gig and a certain kind of cable television fame, which in turn leads to a prominent table at Café Milano, the celebrated Georgetown power boite feted in this week’s New York Times.
Dubke “earnestly believes that everyone should pull together to help this president govern better,” said the Republican strategist, who asked not to be named so as not antagonize the Trump White House. “But their real focus is what they can do to make themselves look better. The reporters who are getting their leaks know who they are, and the leaks amount to a chit in the favor bank. It’s part of the circle of life in Washington, where a leak to a reporter makes the reporter indebted, and gives the leaker the capacity to make a graceful exit and get positive press coverage at a time of that individual’s choosing.”
The Politico story also laid bare, once again, the persistent rift between those White House staffers who toiled on the Trump campaign and the GOP establishment Johnny-come-latelies who arrived after the election from the Republican National Committee.
Some of the Trump loyalists, resentful of the prominent positions given to outsiders like Dubke, continue to deride the RNC-ers as the “October 7th Crowd”—that is, nervous nellies who swiftly bailed on the Republican nominee after the Oct. 7 release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged to Billy Bush about his pussy-grabbing abilities.
Politico’s leakers seemed to be a mix of aggrieved loyalists and self-serving careerists—a toxic brew amounting to a magnificent gift for any enterprising Washington journalist.
“I think the president’s head would explode if he heard that,” one official confided to Politico concerning Dubke’s alleged statement during the meeting that the Trump presidency needed “rebranding” to get back on track.
“It rubbed people the wrong way because on the campaign we were pretty clear about what he wanted to do,” said another White House staffer who claimed Dubke told the group that there was no “Trump Doctrine” in the foreign-policy realm. “He was elected on a vision of America First. America First is the Trump doctrine.”
A third leaker claimed: “We’ve got a comms team supposedly articulating the president’s message [that] does not appear to understand the president’s message.”
Unlike White House press secretary Sean Spicer, a longtime RNC ally of former party chairman and current White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Dubke is not responsible for day-to-day messaging, but instead is trying to plot out the longterm communications themes of the Trump presidency.
Dubke, who declined to comment for this article, was said to be figuring out how he will handle the fallout from the Politico story, especially internally with nearly 30 staffers on the White House communications team.
Dubke “hasn’t decided what to do yet,” according to a senior White House official familiar with his thinking, and who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of not being named.
It might be next to impossible to identify who leaked details of last week’s strategy session—there were, apparently, many specific and accurate leaked details that didn’t appear in the Politico story—because the meeting included not only around 20 aides from the communications shop who work directly for Dubke, but also junior and mid-level staffers from the public liaison and political shops, among other West Wing fiefdoms, according to the White House official.
“It was most disappointing if there were half a dozen people [who leaked to Politico],” said the official. “I would say that there were maybe a couple of bad eggs like that who would ruin what—if you talked to a majority of people involved—was a freewheeling and open discussion.”
Dubke had yet, as of Monday afternoon, to call a meeting to discuss the leaks and warn of dire consequences. The Republican strategist, however, suggested that mere warnings are no longer sufficient to plug the especially leak-prone Trump White House, and that only summary executions will have a salutary impact.
“You can’t threaten them with anything,” the strategist said. “You actually have to act.”
The White House official, however, said, “I will let others predict what we’re going to do. I would say that sometimes if you don’t say anything, not knowing what might happen can be even more frightening…A lot of people feel like they were betrayed because of that story. They feel like they can’t speak frankly and openly. All we’re trying to do is what’s best for this administration. That’s the bottom line.”