The rumor du jour is that Donald Trump is promoting/demoting Sean Spicer to communications director and looking for a new press secretary. This follows the abrupt resignation of Trump’s previous communications director, myriad leaks that Trump is unhappy with Spicer’s public performances, and a general air of disrespect for Spicer and the operation he runs around both the White House and Washington.
Asked by the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray why press briefings were increasingly being held off camera, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon texted, “Sean got fatter,” and then refused to respond to follow-up questions. (This really happened.)
Trump is known to believe that his administration’s main problem is that his communications staffers are failing to control the narrative and drive his message. To understand why he’s wrong — and why no communications shake-up will help Trump until Trump learns to help himself — it’s useful to read Sen. Al Franken’s new book. It contains an important lesson for Trump: A communications team is only useful if you listen to them.
Like Trump, Franken came to politics from a background in entertainment. Like Trump, his previous work rewarded him for being provocative, for being funny, for being authentic. But unlike Trump, Franken realized, quickly, that his new job was different from his old job, and he would need new skills and habits to succeed.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate inverts the typical political memoir. Most books by politicians are about how the author isn’t like those other politicians — they’re authentic, they’re honest, they shoot from the hip, they have personality, they still remember what it was like growing up in a small mill town raised by feral dogs and subsisting on nothing but straw.
Franken’s book is about his struggles to be less authentic, to keep his jokes holstered, to unlearn his tendency to go for the laugh or address whatever was bothering him. It’s a book about realizing there are reasons politicians take care with what they say, reasons they listen to their staffers, reasons they respect the norms of the institutions in which they serve. (Incidentally, I interviewed Franken about his book. Go listen, or subscribe to my podcast!)
Take this passage, for instance, in which Franken comes to accept the most reviled political skill of all:
Probably the most ridiculous Politician Skill I had to learn, though, was how to “pivot,” a term which basically means “not answer questions.”
For example, say a reporter asked me, “In the latest polls, you trail Norm Coleman by twenty points. How can you get DFLers to support you for the endorsement if you’re so far behind?”
My instinct would be to answer the question. But that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to say, “When I go around our state, Minnesotans don’t talk about polls. They talk about their kids’ education, and how they’re worried that they’ll go bankrupt if someone in their family gets sick.” And so on. I understood the concept. For some reason, I was unable to use it. I had always been taught by my parents and my teachers to answer questions directly and completely.
Which I did for the first ten months of my race, driving my team nuts. But of course, my team was right. Reporters would just use the most interesting (and, usually, unhelpful) sound bites in my lengthy responses to their questions, instead of writing about the message that we wanted to get out that particular day.
This basic story repeats itself throughout Franken’s book. Franken’s staff tells him not to do something that a normal person would do in his situation. He does it anyway. It backfires. He listens to his staff the next time. It works.
Trump’s approach to politics has been the opposite of Franken’s. He has little respect for his new profession and less for the people who’ve devoted their lives to it. He says (and tweets!) what he wants, when he wants, and blames the backlash on his staffers. He can’t have a successful communications director because he won’t allow himself to be directed.
There is no press strategy in the world capable of succeeding if the president of the United States is going to sit down with NBC’s Lester Holt and say his White House was lying and he really did fire James Comey to squelch the Russia investigation.
In his book, Franken tells the story of how he hired Jess McIntosh as his press secretary. Franken wanted to do an interview with a Minneapolis Star Tribune writer discussing his background in comedy and its relevance to his political career. His staff called in McIntosh, who was communications director for Minnesota Democratic Party (technically, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, because Minnesota is weird, but that’s not relevant to the story), because she had “a well-earned reputation for talking candidates out of doing stupid things that they wanted to do.” She managed to talk Franken out of doing the interview he wanted to do, and, in return, he hired her as his press secretary.
This is a story that Trump — and anyone considering serving as his press secretary or communications director — should heed. The reason McIntosh was effective was that Franken actually listened to her advice. The reason Franken hired her was because he considered her judgment superior to his own. Trump doesn’t reliably listen to anyone’s advice. He is convinced that his instincts are the highest authority on what should be said, and when. And so it’s impossible for his staff to be effective.