The Impossible Job of Speaking for Trump

Mike Dubke, the White House communications director, is leaving a few months after taking on the very difficult job of crafting public messaging for a famously improvisational president.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

As a staffer in the Trump White House, it’s dangerous to get too much attention; President Trump is known to dislike it when his staff outshines him in the media, or when aides get too much credit.

But as the departure of White House communications director Mike Dubke shows, having too low of a profile doesn’t protect you either.

“Mike is a pro,” said Katie Packer Beeson, a Republican strategist who has known Dubke for years. “But a communications expert is only as effective as the principal allows them to be. The best communications director in the business is no match for a boss who thinks they know better, changes their mind and struggles with the truth. This is an impossible job and no amount of compensation in the world would make it worth taking.”

Dubke tendered his resignation on May 18, though his departure only became public knowledge on Tuesday in an Axios report, after Trump returned from his first foreign trip abroad. Dubke, a founder of the media-buying firm Crossroads Media, and an establishment Republican, was primarily brought in by press secretary Sean Spicer, another mainstream Republican figure whose stature within the administration has suffered. A shakeup in the White House communications shop after the foreign trip had been rumored for some time, but Dubke's departure is the first concrete sign that one could be underway. The embattled Spicer, whose job has seemed perpetually in danger from the beginning, still gave the press briefing on Tuesday. One possible outcome is for Spicer to replace Dubke, with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking Spicer’s current job.

Dubke’s ouster is being presented as a voluntary resignation.

"I want to thank Mike Dubke for his service to President Trump and this administration,” White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said in a statement on Tuesday. “We appreciate Mike and are very grateful for his service to President Trump and our country.  Mike tendered his resignation just before the President's historic international trip and offered to remain onboard until a transition is concluded.  Mike will assist with the transition and be a strong advocate for the President and the President's policies moving forward."

A Republican strategist with close knowledge of the situation said Dubke had taken the job knowing that it would be exceptionally difficult.

“I think he went into this with eyes as wide open as they could be and understood what the challenges might be and the challenges ended up being real,” the strategist said. “It’s a tough job to begin with but how do you manage to plan and execute around a president who’s as unpredictable as Trump? I don’t know how you do it.”

Dubke never cut much of a figure in a White House populated with outsize personalities and animated by factionalism and conflict. Trump told people he felt Dubke “could never go on offense” and that he didn’t think Dubke “would be somebody who was willing to go to the mat,” said a source close to the White House. Trump has blamed his communications team for the morass his administration finds itself in, as scandals related to the Russia investigation pile up and dominate coverage of his White House.

Dubke was never truly empowered to shape the White House’s message and did not become a part of Trump’s inner circle of aides. And one of the only times when Dubke was noticed didn’t go over well; Trump told people he was displeased that Dubke was cited in a Politico piece saying the president doesn’t have a foreign policy doctrine, according to the source close to the White House. Trump, the source said, was unfamiliar with Dubke when he was hired.

I tried to get Dubke to cooperate for a profile back in April; he invited me for a meeting in his office in the “upper press” area of the White House, but politely declined to cooperate. This remained the case on Tuesday. “Appreciate the persistence, but still think I will take a pass,” Dubke said in an email.

Dubke’s background made him an object of suspicion on the Trump-loyalist right, at least at first. In its story on his hiring, Breitbart News described him as a “Karl Rove acolyte” who “worked his way into President Donald Trump’s White House.” Dubke’s low profile made him less of a target during his tenure from Breitbart and its fellow travelers than some other establishment figures who have come on board to the White House. But he never fit in to any of the factions inside the White House.

“He’s not one of the New York people,” said the Republican strategist. “He’s not someone who’s looking to remake the world in some nationalistic image. And he’s not someone who got swept along in the tide from the RNC. In a world of factionalism he didn’t really fit into any one particular camp.”

Under different circumstances, someone like Dubke could have been an asset to a dysfunctional and disorganized White House.

“I think that his approach and personality is what the White House needs,” Brian Jones, Dubke’s partner at the Black Rock Group, told me when I was reporting a profile on Dubke in April. Dubke is expected to rejoin Black Rock after leaving the White House. “This is someone who plays nice with others, this is not someone who’s counting how many times they’re going to be on TV in week, this is someone who’s very results-driven and focused.”

The press team at the White House has struggled to keep up with, and explain a president who consistently creates communications problems for them to solve. His unwillingness to match his own message to that of his spokespeople speaks to an eternal truth about Trump, which is that he is the only person who can speak for himself. No one else has ever truly been empowered to do so.

Trump is now showing signs of wanting to return to his roots, so to speak, communications-wise. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is in the process of setting up a team dedicated to dealing with the Russia issue; former Citizens United chief David Bossie, now at a pro-Trump outside group, and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, have both been spoken to about being a part of it.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bossie said on Fox and Friends on Tuesday morning. “They’ve talked to many people including me.”

During the same TV hit, Bossie said Dubke “has done a good job trying to put together a communications staff at the White House, and it looks like it’s his time to move on because the White House looks like it’s going in a little bit different direction.”

Beeson, the Republican operative and Dubke ally, said there was only one person who could ultimately do Dubke’s former job.

“Trump should be his own communications director,” she said. “No one else can do it.”