Returning to the West Wing just a month after impeachment, one of President Donald Trump’s closest advisers found a presidency in crisis: a deadly disease outbreak, a tumbling stock market and a White House struggling to form a clear message about how it was confronting a quickly escalating threat.
For Hope Hicks, it marked a challenge unlike any other — trying to develop a communications strategy for the president to carry with a wartime footing in an election year. As one of the few aides Trump implicitly trusts, the former White House communications director urged the president to act as a frontman for the coronavirus crisis — a leader who could offer calming messages, critical health information and important updates on the progress of the White House’s response efforts, instead of delegating those responsibilities to health officials or the vice president.
The daily briefings are no longer seen inside the White House as the most effective format for Trump, so she and others must develop other venues and weigh when he can again start to travel to events that so energize him. Internally, aides believe his outsize platform can break through the clutter of news — even if the briefings do not end up being his preferred medium in the coming weeks.
“She understands the president is the message. It cannot be outsourced to anyone,” said Tony Sayegh, one of Hicks’ friends and a former assistant secretary of the Treasury and close aide to Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “He is at his strongest when he is communicating directly with the public. Her instincts are impeccable and lead to good decisions.”
But those appearances have run into trouble. After the president peddled scientifically dubious theories and dangerous treatments, like the injection of disinfectants, task force members held no briefings over the weekend.
Aides and close allies have begun to question the decision to give him so much airtime, according to interviews with a dozen current and former senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House. And critics charge that the White House’s overwhelmingly positive messaging — on reopening the economy, testing, the manufacturing of supplies — is belied by reality.
“Look, the briefings were clearly created and designed to try to fix the president’s political health and had very little to do with public health,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary under President Barack Obama who now serves as senior counsel for Bully Pulpit Interactive Media. “Even before Thursday’s disinfectant fiasco, the level of misinformation and contradictory messaging at a moment when the country needs clarity has been jarring and dangerous.”
The White House press shop says the president has made himself available more than most leaders to take questions, even in tough times — a move that should be applauded.
The “president felt it was important in these challenging, difficult times to be honest and speak directly to the American people about the challenges we face,” said Hogan Gidley, the White House principal deputy press secretary.
“A lot of other people would not have done that, but it is a testament to his leadership that he was the one who wanted to deliver that news, so he could be honest with the American people but also offer a message of hope.”
Hicks reentered the West Wing just as chief of staff Mark Meadows has tried to find his place weeks into the job, and as he overhauls the press and communications teams that Hicks once oversaw.
For all her eagerness to be back in thick of things, Hicks didn’t expect to start work in the middle of a pandemic.
She had decamped in 2018 from Washington to Los Angeles, where she worked as the chief communications officer for Fox. Friends say she did not love living in Southern California, wanted to be closer to her family on the East Coast and, most important, missed the pace and dynamism of the White House, where top aides are always in the middle of sweeping moments in history.
The public announcement of her return came at a heady moment in Trump world. Aides felt confident about the prospects for a second term after impeachment, with a strong economy and a bump in the president’s approval ratings. Trump also traveled to Davos, Switzerland, and India, acting as president on the world stage.
By March 9, when Hicks officially joined the White House, the severity of the pandemic had become clear. She quickly realized the whole government needed to zero in on the virus. She started to attend the daily task force meetings to offer advice on strategy and the best way to respond to the story of the day and communicate with the public.
Quickly she began to oversee the president’s schedule and focus on his events. She advocated for bringing business leaders to the White House and to the briefings, along with reaching out to groups as diverse as drug manufacturers and religious leaders, and involving the private sector as much as possible. Like the first lady, Ivanka Trump and Kushner, she felt that the entire White House megaphone should be dedicated to the response.
Hicks’ return, current and former senior administration officials say, gave the president a loyal and trusted aide. With her quick-witted sense of humor, she tends to get along with the majority of staffers inside the backbiting White House, and she can deliver advice to the president in an unfiltered way without angering him because Trump trusts her and views her like another daughter or member of his family.
Hicks remains close to the president’s family, including his daughter Ivanka and Kushner, for whom she now works. Her new office sits across from Kushner’s in the West Wing. She is also tight with Dan Scavino, who was recently promoted to deputy chief of staff for communications; Gidley, the principal deputy press secretary; and Stephen Miller, senior adviser for policy. Both Miller and Scavino worked with her on the 2016 campaign.
Along with Kushner, Miller and staff secretary Derek Lyons, Hicks urged the president to give an Oval Office address to the nation to convey the seriousness of the pandemic amid Americans’ rising anxiety and volatility in the stock market — a speech, on March 11, that critics panned because of Trump’s stilted delivery and a raft of inaccuracies that aides later had to clarify.
A few days later, Trump gave a briefing in the Rose Garden that restored confidence among White House aides.
At the urging of aides and political advisers, Trump started to cast himself as a wartime president. He treated the daily briefings like a campaign rally. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential race receded from the attention of Americans, giving Trump center stage. Some of his advisers and aides hope he can use this to his advantage.
“Right now, the president can use this crisis as an opportunity to get ahead. Joe Biden is relegated to his basement, so Trump can stand out,” said Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, referring to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “To the extent Hope can steer him in the right direction, she is a very powerful and respected voice and she is listened to.”
While her focus has been on making sure the White House is “operating with one voice,” according to a former administration official, there have been moments of internal confusion over some of the event planning. For example, the press and communications teams were unaware of a Fox News town hall in late March that was pulled together at the last minute, and scrambled to support the broadcast in the Rose Garden, according to a person familiar with the matter.
A huge part of the Trump administration’s calculus on fighting the coronavirus has come down to messaging: The president’s ability to sell Americans on the efficacy of the response.
The next messaging challenge for Hicks will be planning events focused on an economic recovery in the aftermath of the crisis, especially with a president who is eager to get out of the White House and back on the road.
But messaging alone may not be enough to boost Trump’s political future if the U.S. fails to produce enough tests, or the unemployment rate continues to spike or the reopening of the economy in different states backfires.
“This gets repeated in every White House, but when there is some intractable problem, everyone decides it is a communications problem, but 99 percent of the time, it is not,” said Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton. “Even the best communications people in the world cannot fix an underlying policy problem forever.”
“The problem is they have not taken testing seriously,” he added. “Until you are able to do the kind of testing the scientists want, you can’t develop a policy based on data. Right now, the policy is based on political aspirations.”