As we look down the maw of next week’s US presidential election, what’s left to say? Lousy candidates? So forget about them. Let’s talk about the surrogates, those representatives and supporters they trot out to make their case in the media.
Despite her many shortcomings, Hillary Clinton’s surrogates are a veritable A-Team. Sure they spin. That’s their job.
Donald Trump’s? They’re like whirling dervishes after binge drinking. Some sound like they’re reading straight from the National Enquirer, the gossip and innuendo rag that sells itself at slow-moving checkout counters with headlines like “Melania: Mine was Grabbed by Millennials from Mars.”
One Trump surrogate, Jeffrey Lord, in addressing support for the candidate from hate groups, called the Ku Klux Klan a “leftist” organization. Another, Kayleigh McEnany, called waterboarding “a bit of discomfort.” A third, Michael Cohen, a Trump lawyer reacting to reports that his boss’s first wife hinted the candidate had raped her while they were married, said we must “understand that by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse.”
The learned attorney later apologized for his gaffe, although he made a fool of himself once more thanks to this exchange with CNN anchor Brianna Keilar during a discussion of one of the many reorganizations in the Trump campaign: Keilar
: You guys are down, and it makes sense that...Cohen
: [Tough-guy tone] Says who?
[Interrupting] Says who? Keilar
: Polls. Most of them. [Wincing] All of them? Cohen
: [Still in tough-guy mode] Says who? Keilar
: Polls. I just told you. I answered your question.Cohen
: Okay. Which polls? Keilar
: All of them.Cohen
: [Two seconds of silence] Okay. And your question is?
Just as insulting are some of the Trump surrogates’ shortcomings with language.
In early August, Katrina Pierson blamed President Barack Obama for the death in Iraq of Humayun Khan, the Muslim US Army officer whose grieving father spoke eloquently at the Democratic National Convention. Others in on the conversation noted that when Khan was killed, George W. Bush was president.
After a few seconds of silence, Pierson sprang back by admitting she had made a timeline mistake, but Khan’s death and whatever had happened in Iraq could not be blamed on her candidate (something no one had even intimated). Then, the lingo zinger: “How,” she implored, “can we possibly put any of the onerous on Donald Trump?” THIS ELECTION cycle has been onerous enough without having to listen to surrogate boneheads. So I asked a seasoned American crisis-management professional who has worked with corporations and government agencies (and wished to remain anonymous) what he would say to them.
“In a crisis, time is short, emotions are hot, and listeners are skeptical,” he told me. “Confidence is good, but if you want to reach your audience and change their minds or influence their behavior, you need to earn their trust by being humble, human and relatable. Few of Trump’s surrogates do this effectively.”
But there are indeed ways to maintain your credibility.
“If you don’t know [something], don’t guess,” he explained. “Certainly, don’t repeat an allegation that has already been proven wrong. Show humility and empathy.
Acknowledge when you’re wrong and explain what happened, and focus on the future and how you’re going to ensure it doesn't happen again.”
In late August, a couple of weeks after the Keilar-Cohen exchange, Washington Post columnist and media writer Dana Milbank wrote about Trump and his surrogates: “Credentialed conservatives and elected Republicans generally won’t defend him. And so the cable news outlets scrape the bottom of the barrel to find people willing to make Trump’s case.”
Worse than their performance, though, is the way the surrogates’ presence – their embedding, you might call it – has affected what we learn from the ubiquitous panel discussions on news programs, something addressed by the Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti.
“Trump’s divorce from truth on the trail has been buttressed by talking heads relaying his misinformation on cable,” he wrote in late October.
Uberti focused on CNN, which he admiringly described as “down-the-middle” in its reporting on the campaign – although it has been the chief culprit for mixing in surrogates with legitimate pundits.
“Such surreal ‘analysis,’” he wrote, “goes beyond the usual parroting of partisan talking points, with statements clouding, if not contradicting, CNN’s own reporting. The network’s journalists have performed admirably under these circumstances.... But the argument that this setup adds value for the audience, on balance, is dubious at best.”
IMMEDIATELY AFTER the final debate, in which Trump refused to say whether he’d respect the election’s outcome, CNN’s Anderson Cooper convened a panel.
When he asked his guests what they thought, Jake Tapper, the network’s chief Washington correspondent, called it “one of the most stunning things I’ve ever heard in a presidential debate, ever.” A Trump surrogate, in what Uberti called “a Hail Mary,” simply went back to the repeated assertion of a rigged campaign, claiming that “there are as many as four million dead people registered to vote right now.
There is voting fraud out there.”
After a few seconds of heated cross talk, Cooper looked at her and said: “You’re making that up.”
It’s a start, but a bit late, Mr. Cooper.
Wouldn’t you agree?