Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix

Donald Trump just turned a key moment into a complete mess (once again)

By Philip Bump

July 15, 2016 at 11:56 AM

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The Fix's Chris Cillizza explains why Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) was the best vice presidential pick of the candidates Donald Trump was considering. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Just as the Indianapolis Star reported on Thursday afternoon, Donald Trump has selected Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) as his running mate. But between the Star's report and Trump's confirmation of it, Trump managed to do just about everything possible to draw attention away from the assets that Pence provides to his campaign and, instead, to make his campaign look like a mess.

It is always the case that the vice-presidential pick is made at the discretion of the person at the top of the ticket. Usually, though, that pick is a function of a coordinated effort by the upper-echelon campaign staff, the party backing that candidate and a team of people assigned with screening and assessing the various possibilities. The announcement of a vice-presidential choice is a guaranteed moment of media attention, and so campaigns do their best to manage how the announcement is made. Location and timing are set, the program itself is carefully planned. To the best of its ability, the campaign tries to keep the pick quiet until they're ready to release it, since that's the news. If it leaks early, fewer people will tune in to hear the announcement — and fewer people will hear the speeches arguing for why the ticket is preferable to the alternative.

That's not how the Trump process went. On Thursday morning, the Pence story broke and the campaign denied that a decision had been made, which isn't uncommon. But for once, it seems as though a decision maybe hadn't been made — or, worse, that it had been made and then Trump pulled back. Newt Gingrich, one of the two other primary contenders for the position, hadn't been contacted by the campaign by the time the Star was running its story; it's not clear when or if Trump contacted him at all. (Update: Apparently he didn't get a call before Trump's tweet.) NBC reports that Trump called Gov. Chris Christie — the other contender — Thursday afternoon, but didn't tell him yes or no. Was Trump keeping his options open? He said last night that he hadn't made a "final, final decision" — but Pence had already set off for his hotel in New York for the campaign kickoff.

Then, in a completely baffling move, Trump announced that his previously announced plan to unveil his pick on Friday at Trump Tower was being scrapped, ostensibly because of the terror attack in Nice on Thursday night. But that attack didn't stop Trump from otherwise campaigning: He held a fundraiser on Thursday night, well after the attacks, and called in to multiple Fox News programs to weigh in on the attacks.

Related: [Winners and losers from Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick]

The postponement lacks any logical explanation whatsoever — particularly because Trump went ahead and made his announcement on Friday morning anyway, albeit on Twitter. (As Bloomberg reported last month, such an announcement was a fear of his advisers, who worried that "Trump may decide on his own to post the announcement on Twitter one night with little warning.") Was it Trump wanting more time to weigh his options? Was it ... what was it? Some people on social media speculated that Trump worried that he'd be competing for media attention with coverage of Nice, which seems possible. Other speculation indicates that it was a fit of pique about having the decision leak — which also seems more than possible.

Whatever the reason for the not-actually-a-postponement, the campaign clearly wasn't ready for the announcement itself. Politico's Shane Goldmacher outlined on Twitter a number of things that most campaigns would do to prepare for the moment: Updating the campaign website, refocusing Pence's social media to reflect his new position, buying Google ads for people curious about Pence (of whom there are a lot) or even releasing information about Pence to the media and public. Four days ago, Trump promised those who signed up for text alerts that they would be "among the first of my supporters to know" once he made his decision. It's been almost an hour since he tweeted Pence as his pick, as of writing; no text message with that news has arrived. (Update: It arrived two hours after the tweet, which had already been tweeted 26,000 times.)

The top news on Trump's website an hour after the Pence announcement on Twitter. Twenty minutes later, the site was updated -- but not with Pence information.

The official rollout event has been kicked to Saturday in New Jersey, moving the news coverage from a Friday evening newscast to a summer Saturday. To be fair, as was pointed out to me on Twitter, Mitt Romney announced his pick of Paul Ryan on a summer Saturday, too. But Romney planned to do that. Trump is announcing his pick on a Saturday because he decided on Thursday night not to do it on Friday. Or, at least: We currently assume that Trump is making his announcement on Saturday. Who knows.

The whole thing is, to some extent, evocative of Trump's spending nearly a week defending his tweet of an apparent Star of David at the same moment he could have been criticizing Hillary Clinton for the resolution of the investigation into her email server. Then, as now, Trump's passions seem to have gotten the better of normal political instincts. In this case, though, the stakes are far higher. When I wrote in April about how a president picks his or her running mate, former Romney and George W. Bush adviser Stuart Stevens identified the rollout as one of three moments the VP pick actually can help (the other two being the convention speech and the debate).

Batting .000 so far.

There's no rational defense for this. Fans of Trump will seek to figure out some spin, portraying it as a savvy move to once again stymie those hated liberals in the mainstream media. They're welcome to think that. In reality, Trump badly fumbled one of the first moments during which he was tasked with making an important, high-profile decision in the eyes of the American public. He and his campaign aren't by any measure doomed as a result, but that one might be in a position to wonder how a VP roll-out might damage a campaign suggests that things did not go as well as they might have.


Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Post based in New York City.

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