Count me as a dissenter on the biggest question facing Washington: Should Donald Trump be allowed (whatever that means) to keep his Twitter account? With one voice, Washington shouts, “No. No. No.” I reply, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
I spent seven years in the Reagan Administration. My assignments ranged from management review of the government, to urban and international economic policy, to speechwriter for the vice president and then for the president. Unlike any role outside of the White House, my every day as a presidential speechwriter was dominated by one question: How do we keep control of the Washington agenda?
People talk about the power of the presidency… the Bully Pulpit and all that. But those of us in speechwriting (and other communications roles) could never afford to forget that, with the exception of the occasional fleeting moment, we started each day on the defense – and our job was always, always to turn the situation around, putting the president back in charge of the capital’s conversation.
For then as now every day started with the before-dawn arrival on doorsteps and desks of the two most powerful anti-administration voices in town — not the Democrats in Congress, but the New York Times and the Washington Post. Those papers set the day’s agenda for the big television morning shows (at the time just CBS, NBC, and ABC), more often than not attacking the president’s decisions and purposes and, unless countered, for the rest of the news day.
Generally the first effective White House response would be the press secretary’s late morning briefing. “Effective” meant strong enough from a high enough source that journalists felt compelled to acknowledge and quote. Direct presidential comment might come via answering a question on the way to or from an event or in a speech. But while speeches often proved by far the most effective tools for stopping, redirecting, or reversing media tides, the speechwriting process with all its clearances and tied as it was to an established schedule usually required a day or two to work its magic. In other words, the White House could always count on being hours or days behind the message curve.
With his Twitter feed, Donald Trump has changed all that.
This Friday provided a perfect example. In terms of front page column inches, The Times’ biggest story was that four cabinet secretaries designate had given confirmation-hearing answers that seemed to put daylight between them and their boss-to-be, or as the headline said, “Latest to Disagree With Trump: His Nominees.” The Times was making yet another effort in the ongoing campaign to delegitimize and cripple the President-elect before he enters office.In an earlier era this headline would have dominated “Morning Joe” and all the other shows unanswered. Not now. At 6:49 am, Trump tweeted, “All of my Cabinet nominees are looking good and doing a great job. I want them to be themselves and express their own thought, not mine!” The shows had to carry it, so by the time Washington turned to its papers and turned on its TVs, he had already diminished the “new administration at war with itself” line and introduced a substitute: “self-confident leader encourages healthy debate among advisors.”
In an earlier era this headline would have dominated “Morning Joe” and all the other shows unanswered. Not now. At 6:49 am, Trump tweeted, “All of my Cabinet nominees are looking good and doing a great job. I want them to be themselves and express their own thought, not mine!” The shows had to carry it, so by the time Washington turned to its papers and turned on its TVs, he had already diminished the “new administration at war with itself” line and introduced a substitute: “self-confident leader encourages healthy debate among advisors.”
Yes, Donald Trump may have his Twitter missteps. At times he may prove too quick on the draw, as arguably he was in responding to Congressman John Lewis’ reprehensible statement that the constitutionally elected President-elect of the United States will not be a “legitimate” president. The civil rights movement of which the congressman was so noble a leader prevailed by affirming the Constitution and the rule of law. That was the whole point of Dr. King’s strategy of non-violence. Now Congressman Lewis appears to be against both.
But as for Mr. Trump, missteps will be the price that the current minute-by-minute news cycle exacts if the incoming President is to keep control of the Washington agenda. The pace of undermining reports will be too fast for all the careful vetting that was once the rule, particularly when much of the major media and elements in the opposition party are pedal to the metal and in overdrive to neuter the Trump presidency before it starts.
This post originally appeared in Ricochet.