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Communication Breakdown – The Trump Administration’s Policy Messaging Disconnect

by Richard Cameron

Communication Breakdown – it’s always the same…

Since Trump’s swearing in as president, he has consistently issued public messages, mostly through social media avenues that contradict those of his cabinet officials and even the men and women  in the White House communications office, whose task it is to disseminate orderly and consonant information to the public through the press, radio and television.

This week has been remarkable in that respect. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson reported that he had embarked on a diplomatic initiative involving private talks with North Korean officials, which were very likely indirectly brokered by China, where Tillerson had returned from his second visit on Saturday.  Trump found the impulse to undercut his Secretary of State’s mission, irresistible: 

Trump tweet mocks Sec of State Rex Tillerson's diplomatic initiatives with North Korea

The situation has been so pronounced and the effects and the risks so considerable, that it leaves open to speculation just what Trump’s motives are.

Why Does Trump kneecap administration officials and cabinet members with contradictory statements?

Is it a perverse form of entertainment for him?  Is it his flying by the seat of his pants and lacking consideration of consequences – that leads him to compulsively disregard the ordinary rules of coordinating a coherent message?  

Is it perhaps that Trump is opting not to take counsel from advisers within his administration or cabinet secretaries, but instead from, Fox News, Breitbart and Info Wars?  We know he thinks he understands the world scene with keen insight because, according to him, “I watch the shows”:

Or is it solely that Trump interprets policy on the basis of little more than his limited imagination and the scant, policy and intelligence briefings from aides that he insists be two minutes or less – and that he reportedly does not read or sit for on most days?  As one White House insider told Foreign Policy off the record:  

“It’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump.  It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing. They’re freaking out.”

The possibility also exists that Trump feels free to blurt out disruptive and incoherent statements because there are likely to be, in his estimation, no repercussions from his political base and that doing so, distracts them (Trump voters) from his other messaging that contradicts his campaign promises. 

And why, for example, do cabinet officials, like Tillerson remain on the job despite the spiteful and disrespectful behavior of the President?  As the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus put it recently; 

“Why does Tillerson stay? He won’t explain. If his goal is to turn himself into a human guardrail to stop Trump from driving foreign policy off a cliff, he deserves our thanks.”

It’s been amazing and excruciating to witness over this past seven plus months and the entire litany is beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll look back at some of the notables in particular. 

Conflicting Messaging On Russia

  • While Trump said “nobody really knows” if Russia intervened in the election in November last year, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley told fellow diplomats that “everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections.”  Evidently she left Donald Trump out of the definition of “everybody”.      
  • Haley packaged Trump’s meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in these terms, when speaking with CNN’s Dana Bash:

“What he did was bring up right away the election meddling, and he did that for a reason. One, he wanted … to basically look him in the eye, let him know that: ‘Yes, we know you meddled in our elections. Yes, we know you did it, and cut it out.’”

Trump felt compelled to counter that by later telling reporters about Putin’s “vehement” denial of wrongdoing, and that he, Trump, is “ready to move forward in working constructively with Russia.”

Contrary statements about Russia persisted in June, when Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson stated in a press conference that the president and Putin’s discussion touched on the move in Congress for further sanctions against Russia. Soon afterwards, Trump tweeted, “Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin. Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved!  

Israel and Palestine

  •  In May, Trump stumbled through a typically incoherent comment while in Israel:

“So I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like.  I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.  I could live with either one.  I thought for a while that two state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly if Bibi and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

That was less an authoritative presidential observation on a significant foreign policy issue, than it was similar to someone capriciously declining to even take a cursory glance at the menu at a distinguished restaurant and saying, “I’ll have what they’re having.” 

Not only did it sound as though Trump lacked even an elementary grasp of the matter at hand and was merely tossing off some diplomatic speak he had heard batted around here or there or bolded on a talking point – but a day later, Ambassador Haley, told reporters, “We absolutely support a two-state solution.”  

The Gulf States, Jim Comey, American Values and Iraq’s Oil

  • While Rex Tillerson and other cabinet members were urging reconciliation of the Gulf states with Qatar over accusations by Saudi Arabia and others that Qatar continued to be funding terrorist indoctrination on the sly, Trump undercut their efforts, Tweeting, “During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump added, “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
  • Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, packaged the firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey as being the result of Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation. But a day later, Trump dismissed that in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt and admitted that it was because Comey persisted in his investigation on this “Russia thing.” 
  • When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked to comment on the president’s statements directly after the Charlottesville incident, Tillerson replied, “the president speaks for himself”, which in context with Tillerson’s previous comments in the interview about “American values”, was interpreted as a rejection of Trump’s attempt to make an equivalence between White Nationalists and counter demonstrators.
  • Just after his inauguration, Trump speculated during a talk at CIA headquarters, that taking ownership of Iraq’s oil could be a beneficial foreign policy objective.  About a month later Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was in Baghdad assuring the Iraqis that the United States doesn’t take oil — it pays for it.

The NATO kerfuffle       

Photo - NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed US Vice President Mike Pence to NATO Headquarters on Monday (20 February 2017)

This next “charlie foxtrot” is a good illustration of how, for whatever reason, Trump often deliberately brings messages that  are contrary to the judgment of his policy advisers and cabinet officials.

  • Vice President Pence, in Brussels on the same day as the Iraq oil confiscation debacle, had to reassure European leaders that, despite Trump’s comments prior (including a year ago on the campaign trail), that the U.S. is in fact, still committed to the NATO alliance.
  • In late May, National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all urged Trump to reaffirm Article 5 – the core principles of collective defense outlined in the language of the treaty – and they even included easy to recite language in the speech for him.

On May 24th, everyone, including a White House aide, was confident of the item in the speech, having done a final   review of the draft copy. Needless to say, they were all taken aback when they heard Trump deliver the speech and   the statement was completely excluded from it.

A senior White House official told Politico that, “There was a fully coordinated other speech everybody else  had worked on” and it wasn’t the one Trump gave. “They didn’t know it had been removed,” said a third source of the Trump national security officials on hand for the ceremony. “It was only upon delivery.”

Responding to the chaos Trump injected into the Qatar situation, John B. Bellinger, a State Department legal adviser in the Bush (43) administration, noted,

“It’s not just undercutting Secretary Tillerson, it’s putting at potential risk the relationship between the Defense Department and Qatar, something that is extremely important to the Department of Defense. He has repeatedly necessitated having both secretaries Mattis and Tillerson to quietly reassure allies that the president doesn’t really mean these things.”

Most recently, on August 30, Trump messaged policy that runs in stark contradiction of both the State Department and the Pentagon with regard to the North Korea situation.  Trump tweeted,

But later in the day, Defense Secretary Mattis, when asked if the U.S. planned to shut down the diplomatic avenues, Mattis simply replied, “No.”

He went on to essentially refute Trump’s tweet, saying, “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions. We continue to work together, and the minister and I share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations and our interests, which is what we are here to discuss today, and look for all the areas with we can collaborate.”

Trump’s Transgender Freelancing – Communication Breakdown II

And then there is the announcement in memo form, from the White House that Trump issued a directive to block further recruitment of transgender individuals and to drum the existing group out of the ranks of the military.  Trump’s Tweet with regard to the matter was minus any formal subtleties:

“after consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow,

….victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.” 

The main problem (among many) with the Tweet, was that it was a lie.  He did not consult with his “generals” and if he spoke to any “military experts” – the definition of that is so wide open that it could include anyone, including Sean Hannity.

Defense Secretary Mattis, who was blindsided by Trump’s tweet on the subject,  took it on his own initiative to announce that the president’s order would be reviewed – not implemented forthwith.  Another study will be conducted by the Pentagon, but no one can say why it is needed, given the fact that the DOD commissioned a report last year from the Rand Corporation, who in summary, concluded that the presence of Transgender soldiers posed no uncommon issues with regard to troop cohesion or deployment.

The projected cost of any out of the ordinary medical care was estimated to be no more than .0005% of the Pentagon’s existing medical care budget.  Mattis’ own bottom line on the issue is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’  Secretary Mattis issued a response to the Trump Tweet and memo:

“Once the panel reports its recommendations and following my consultation with the secretary of Homeland Security, I will provide my advice to the president concerning implementation of his policy direction.  In the interim, current policy with respect to currently serving members will remain in place.”

Communication Breakdown – Trumpsplaining

“The president has always said that Twitter is like owning his own newspaper, except he can’t lose money,” said former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg. “He’ll listen to your advice. He’ll listen to suggestions. But the president is not going to be handled.”

Some in Trump’s constellation of explainers, will dismiss Trump’s refusal to deliver uniform policy messaging as being simply a matter of needing to cater to his political base.  James Carafano, a Senior Fellow on National Security studies at the Heritage Foundation, told The Hill that:

“His ability to talk to his people gives him the power to govern and the promise to get reelected.  If he’s going to be the president in four years, if there’s some kind of notion that he’s a lame duck and unreelectable [sic] — he has to show that he still has the political clout that he always had.”

The problem with this explanation is that it assumes Trump is only the president of his supporters and doesn’t understand his position as serving the country as a whole.

The other problem is described by Gordon Adams, who managed national security budgeting at the Clinton White House’s Office of Management and Budget.  Mr. Adams says that the messaging disarray is causing allies — such as Japan, to distance themselves from the U.S.

“The problem with the president’s tweets is they bewilder people overseas, because they cannot figure out who really speaks for the United States. But if the president doesn’t speak for the United States, who does?”

The confusion and disarray that Trump is causing by undermining his various aides, advisers, communications staff and cabinet officials is something not yet seen to the dimension we are seeing in just 7 months of a presidency, nor the pushback these subordinates find themselves having to resort to in order to put out the fires Trump is constantly starting.  

As some have noted, it all has a kind of a late Nixon White House feel – or perhaps Nero’s Summer of ’68 (AD).


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