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The lesson of Trump: There’s only one communications director

Donald Trump just lost his fifth White House communications director in his 13-month presidency, but the real communications chief remains: the president himself.

From Twitter broadsides to off-the-cuff comments during official events, Trump prefers to be his own messenger, and the White House communications operation had become increasingly marginalized — even before Hope Hicks announced her resignation Wednesday.

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The latest tumult roiling the communications operation underscored an enduring reality: serving a president who considers himself his own best spokesman has always proved a challenge for Trump’s team. Trump himself has said his own spokespeople cannot necessarily be trusted to deliver accurate information — a declaration he made in the wake of the shifting explanations for firing FBI director James Comey.

In the whirl of Trump’s Washington, only Trump can keep track of his shifting positions, changing allegiances and on-and-off feuds. That reality leaves much of the White House in a constant state of catch-up and allows the president to lurch from crisis to crisis, often of his own making. And it has at time threatened his agenda, when a dashed-off tweet can jeopardize a vote or derail a planned meeting.

White House officials see it as the simple reality of serving a nontraditional president who plays by his own rules and expects everyone around him to follow him, no matter how circuitous the path.

“The president was elected to do things differently and that starts with communicating directly with the American people outside the media filter,” principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah said. “The best strategy for the press office is to embrace his social media and direct engagement with the press.”

Before the Hicks announcement Wednesday, the White House abruptly canceled a planned news briefing, citing Trump’s decision to broadcast his meeting with legislators on gun control — the third time in the past week he’s televised himself at work on the issue.

The move, coming after press secretary Sarah Sanders’ return to the podium this week after a brief hiatus, underscored an uncomfortable new reality for the White House press office and communications team: In Trump’s White House, only the president speaks for himself.

Gone are the days of Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci dominating headlines; instead, the president himself is carving out a presidential version of the role he once played as host of “The Apprentice,” emceeing hourlong specials on policymaking. Even longer gone are the days when a White House spokesperson could be seen as speaking for the president.

In a traditional White House, the press shop is one of the primary organs by which the president disseminates his message. In this White House, it is at times unclear whether the press office even knows what the president’s message is.

“I don’t think anyone outside of really Hope [Hicks] in the comms shop really knows what the president is thinking or how he feels on a certain issue,” said a former Trump White House official. “He has a penchant for saying one thing to one person and then going in a completely different direction like two hours later.”

That habit leaves the communications staff in an unenviable position.

“The president routinely puts his communications staff in an impossible position,” said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for GOP nominee Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign. “You cannot do your job as a communications professional if you are not given accurate and complete information.”

Hicks’ unique status — “she can be in any meeting she wants to be in,” quipped one senior administration official — seemed to come at the expense of her official role as communications director. Daily communications meetings tend to be run by Sanders and her deputy, Shah. Along with Sanders and Shah, Mercedes Schlapp, the director of strategic communications, tends to cover the day-to-day responsibilities that would usually fall to the communications director.

“While Hope’s biggest strength might not be the day to day managing of the communications staff, she gets the president’s voice better than just about anyone in the White House and that makes her irreplaceable,” said one person close to the White House.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, speaks his campaign communications manager Hope Hicks, right, as he arrives for service at First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. Trump will be holding a rally at Muscatine High School in the afternoon. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Now Hicks is on her way to the exit, leaving the communications office once more without a head. She was not a traditional communications director, said one official, but she was the type of communications director this White House required, spending lots of time with Trump, advising him and being constantly at his side.

The degree to which the press shop is out of the loop was on glaring display in recent weeks as the White House struggled to explain how former staff secretary Rob Porter maintained an interim security clearance even after accusations of spousal abuse.

The flailing and shifting responses over that situation eventually led Shah to declare “it’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours — or last few days in dealing with this situation.”

A few days later, chief of staff John Kelly was asked by The Wall Street Journal whether the situation should have been handled differently and responded, “No.”

“It was all done right,” he added.

That afternoon, Sanders was again bombarded with questions about the White House’s handling of the controversy. For a spokesperson who is rarely on the defensive, the briefing that day resulted in a rare moment of candor. “I can only give you the best information that I have,” Sanders said at one point.

The episode ended in something of a retreat, with a number of days without briefings and Sanders’ trip to the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

And it is unclear, now that Sanders has returned, how much damage the Porter episode did.

“It’s fair to say that President Trump makes what would already be a very difficult job — speaking on his behalf — all but impossible because of his refusal to consistently speak to and tell the truth to the people that speak for him,” said Josh Earnest, a former press secretary for President Barack Obama.

Incomplete or inaccurate information appears to be an ongoing challenge of the operation. That point was highlighted Tuesday when Hicks told a House committee she sometimes tells “white lies” on the president’s behalf, according to The New York Times.

One White House official stressed that the phenomenon is not unique to the press office.

“I think that a lot of shops in the White House, from the NSC to the legislative affairs to other offices are often in a similar boat,” the official said. “From tweets to specific announcements, sometimes the president just does it. And the relevant policy or national security or legislative offices aren’t always read in.”

Officials around Trump have long been used to the boss’ habit of veering off topic, picking unnecessary fights and jumping between positions. But none have to face the various contradictions and controversies day in and day out like the communications shop, which is regularly a target for blame inside the West Wing, especially in the wake of the Porter fiasco.

“My experience is that ultimately the effectiveness of the communications operation will only go as far as the president will support them, which is to say the people who are speaking on his behalf … can only effectively advocate for him if he is telling them the truth or even speaking to them at all,” Earnest said. “It’s his reluctance to ensure that his press team is accurately communicating his thoughts and perspective that has undermined their ability to effectively advocate for him. But that is no one’s fault but the president’s.”

Trump himself has all but dismissed the credibility of his communications team.

“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Trump wrote on Twitter last May. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

Trump: 'Take the guns first, go through due process second'

Trump has taken to numerous other avenues to get out his message. There’s his Twitter account, of course. There are trips to and from Marine One, when he often stops to take questions shouted over the roar of the helicopter. There’s the occasional press conference with foreign leaders. And, in an increasingly frequent phenomenon, there’s long, winding pool sprays, in which Trump regales the press — usually while surrounded by a group of Cabinet officials, or members of Congress or other distinguished guests — with his thoughts on the news of the day.

That happened again on Monday, when Trump spoke at length during a meeting with a bipartisan group of governors. The briefing that day was something of an afterthought.

“If the White House press corps concedes that the only way they can get reliable information is by talking directly to the president of the United States,” said Earnest, “that will be a significant setback for transparency and accountability — the very things that the White House press corps is supposed to fight for.”

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