Trump doesn’t care about optics. That’s a problem.
President Trump has said “you’re fired” so many times, he probably didn’t think twice before canning former FBI Director James Comey.
By all accounts he and his advisors were shocked at the overwhelmingly negative reaction he got from Democrats, the media, and even some in his own party. But whether the blowback is legitimate or simply manufactured outrage, this incident is a symptom of a broader problem in the Trump Administration: they don’t care enough about “optics.”
And considering the president is a bona fide TV star himself, that’s inexplicable.
If you turned on cable news in the last few days, you may have heard a pundit mention the White House’s “optics” problem. Essentially they are saying that the Comey firing looks bad, regardless of whether Trump’s decision had any merit. It’s easy to dismiss this critique as irrelevant. After all, Comey sucked at his job, and most Republicans and Democrats seem to have agreed to this in the past! Of course he should have been fired! Who cares what the media thinks?
But in today’s post-truth world, perception is nine-tenths of reality.
The media narrative practically writes itself. There’s an ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, which includes looking into Trump advisor and short-lived National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and ex-campaign chair Paul Manafort. The FBI is actively involved in this investigation. To the general public, it doesn’t look so good to drop the guy in charge of one of the agencies investigating your campaign’s connections to one of America’s major foes.
So of course the optics will be bad. And yet this never occurred to Trump or his staff, apparently.
Not that anyone should be surprised they didn’t see this. After all, this isn’t the first time the president and his administration have acted in a way that looked good on paper but turned out badly in practice.
The health care debate has been a giant debacle. A full 17 percent of Americans support the American Health Care Act. Where is the “salesman in chief” selling the people on this plan? Republicans have been swept into office to repeal Obamacare, presumably, but it is getting more popular as GOP alternatives have flatlined.
Speaking of dead, tax reform might be DOA. What is Trump’s message about the need for major reform? As long as his message is muddled, the opposition controls the narrative. Tax cuts for the rich, tax cuts for corporations, blah blah blah.
Meanwhile Trump’s budget isn’t going anywhere and his deal to keep the government open was great for Democrats and not so great for him. He better be prepared to pull out all the stops for the various cuts and spending increases he’s calling for. Take that show on the road, Mr. President, and make your case to the American people.
Look: I support the general idea of the Trump presidency. I voted for him even though he wasn’t my first choice for the GOP nomination. I support his call to dramatically reform government to restore power to the people. I agree we need to clean up and cut down the tax code, trim wasteful spending, repeal and replace Obamacare, and secure our country.
But instead of those things happening, we now have chaos, seemingly. It didn’t have to be this way. President Trump came from a world where all publicity is good publicity. Unfortunately for him, that’s not how the presidency works.
If he and his team want to get back on track, they must start thinking about optics. Here are a few things they should start doing right away:
1- Be more open
Why the secrecy? If you don’t have something to hide, why refuse to release White House visitor logs? Why are we talking about recorded tapes like this is Watergate? The Trump Administration should immediately reverse course and increase transparency. Otherwise they are bringing a lot of this on themselves.
2- Cooperate fully with — and embrace — the Russia investigation
And seriously, stop praising Flynn. His dishonestly over his Russian connection is the single biggest reason the Trump people are in this mess. What Russia did during the election was wrong, and there is no reason to give the opposition any more ammo. The longer you stall, the longer this will go on and give Democrats cover for their embarrassing election loss. If the White House embraces the investigation into Russia and steers the discussion, the optics will improve. Russia is doing terrible things right now all over the world and we are still debating whether they threw the election for Trump? Expand the narrative beyond the election to the bigger issues at play with the Ruskies.
3- Stop the war on the media
We get it. CNN and NBC News suck. That’s why we don’t watch them. But antagonizing the press has only driven up their ratings, and it feeds into the us vs. them mentality that has taken hold of the media elites. They will never like Trump, but again, stop giving them ammo. The First Amendment is pretty important and talk about revisiting libel laws and limiting press access to the White House isn’t helping anything. Trump is actually MORE accessible to the press than Obama was, but you’d never know it with all the controversy over his attacks on reporters.
4- Stop the tweetstorms
Twitter, and social media in general, helped propel Trump to the White House. But it could seriously be his undoing. Everybody loves a good hot take, but enough with the tweeting about celebrities and media figures, enough name calling, just enough. Keep using Twitter, but please, God, every tweet should go through an approval process with significant staff input. Stay on message!
5- Arm your surrogates with all the facts BEFORE making decisions
Trump’s folks were completely caught off guard by the Comey news. There were so many competing stories about what went down and why. Right away the narrative formed that this was connected to the Russia investigation and TRUMP IS NIXON, but that might not have happened if the president had a coherent and convincing explanation to roll out when announcing that Comey was gone. Instead we have the second coming of Watergate and OMG HE MET WITH HENRY KISSINGER SEE I TOLD YOU TRUMP IS NIXONIAN. These conspiracy theories are ridiculous, but to many people they are more believable than what Trump says.
6- Fight for people, not against things, and make moral arguments.
These ideas come from Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute. His book The Conservative Heart is an excellent primer on how the right can more effectively sell its ideas. And even though Trump isn’t a traditional conservative, his appeal to blue collar workers and “the little guy” fits in well with Brooks’ recommendations. Rather than fight against Obamacare, fight for the millions of Americans who have higher premiums and can’t afford their coverage. Trump’s instincts are somewhat right on this, for instance, when he talks about making sure people with preexisting conditions will still have coverage.
For far too long the left have staked a claim to the moral high ground, but President Trump had, and still has, a chance to change that. But if he continues to ignore his optics problem, he’ll never recover from the slump he now finds himself in.
For the good of the country, let’s hope he gets out of his slump and can work with congress to fix the many problems our country faces. If he doesn’t, he may be the one hearing “you’re fired” on November 3, 2020.