I served as press secretary to Montana Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006, a particularly rough year for Republicans that ultimately ushered in the reign of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives.
Sen. Burns, who unfortunately died last year, was vulnerable that election cycle, one of the three top Senate Republican targets in the country for the Democrats. (The other two, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, both lost.)
While I was working there, we had an episode in crisis communications that sparked a flashback for me this week as the latest developments in the Russia election hacking case broke in the news.
During that 2006 campaign, Sen. Burns got into a heated argument with volunteer firefighters at an airport in Montana over whether local property owners should have access to their land during a wildfire. As you might have guessed, the dramatic confrontation became a full-fledged controversy.
Internally, we faced a choice about how to handle this PR crisis.
Ultimately, the senator personally apologized. We put a timeline of events together and detailed his long record of support for firefighters, especially during wildfire season.
How does this apply to the Trump controversies with Russia?
When you have bad news, it is always better to put it out yourself — all at one time.
New House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, told Fox News this week that he wants the White House, the Trump campaign and anyone else in the Trump orbit to meet and compile a complete list of all meetings with Russians and give it to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Part of what has damaged the Trump White House since the election is the ever-looming sense that no one knows where this story is going or what revelations will come next.
This is partly due to the disorganized campaign that Mr. Trump ran, successful though it may have been.
Now each new development is breathlessly covered by the news media, as many Washington journalists have two motivations — a professional duty to aggressively pursue this story and a political goal of damaging President Trump.
In the Bill Clinton years, the term “rolling disclosure” was popularized, and it came to mean offering periodic updates to a controversial situation. It was almost as if the truth had to be pulled out of the Clinton White House.
I do not know where all of these Trump revelations are headed; no one does. Fully 12 months after the FBI investigation began, no charges have been brought, and President Trump has not been implicated.
But this week it became clear that Donald Trump Jr. showed terrible judgment in taking a meeting with a Russian official. He should have declined and called the FBI. I wish he had. At this point, I am sure he wishes he had too.
There is a distance between an intent to “collude” and hard evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and — based on what is publicly known — we are not there yet. This is something noted legal experts like Alan Dershowitz and Jonathan Turley have pointed out.
Jared Kushner, the president’s senior aide and son-in-law, needs to explain why at least three meetings were not disclosed before he received his security clearance. Donald Trump Jr. will need to testify on Capitol Hill soon, as well as answer questions from Robert Mueller and his team.
Wherever this story leads, it is clear now that the damage that has been done to the Trump White House has only grown as these revelations have continued — eight months after the election. Every week it seems to be something new.
Crisis Communications 101 is this: Tell your side of the truth as soon as possible — and tell it once.
It is never too late to take that advice.
— Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. He is the host of a new national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” produced in partnership with The Washington Times. His podcast may be found at washingtontimes.com/mackonpolitics.
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