We wrote last month that Donald Trump's unpredictable surrogates are a reflection of the candidate — and therefore exactly the kinds of messengers he wants. But now, even the Republican presidential nominee appears to recognize that at least some may be more liability than asset.
Will it work? Well, the new booking rule was instituted last Wednesday, according to Bloomberg, so all surrogate appearances over the past week have presumably been campaign-approved. Since then, we've seen Latinos for Trump founder Marco Gutierrez warn about "taco trucks on every corner," watched Ben Carson say Trump should apologize for questioning President Obama's place of birth and heard Newt Gingrich cough while criticizing Clinton for a cough that some conservatives claim, without evidence, indicates some dire medical condition.
So either those seemingly off-script moments were totally on-message, or the new process may not be having quite the impact the campaign might have hoped.
Our original post from August follows:
Conventional wisdom in the media is that Donald Trump has a surrogates problem — and has for quite some time. The Republican presidential nominee is on his third surrogates' director since mid-June (two quit), and it is easy to understand why.
Just look at some of what Bryan Lanza, the current director, has had to deal with in the past week (we picked half a dozen incidents at random from a much, much longer list):
- CNN commentator Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager, questioned whether President Obama was born in the United States, dredging up a conspiracy theory the business mogul promoted throughout the 2012 election — but which he says he doesn't want to talk about anymore.
- Discussing the death of Army Capt. Humayun Khan in Iraq, campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said Obama and Hillary Clinton "changed the rules of engagement that probably cost his life." Obama and Clinton were sworn in as president and secretary of state, respectively, in 2009. Khan was killed in 2004. In a follow-up interview, Pierson acknowledged her timeline was off, but then said "we have had tens of thousands of soldiers that have been lost, 1 million wounded." According to the Department of Defense, 6,892 soldiers have died and 52,447 have been wounded in Middle East theaters since 9/11.
- Questioned about Pierson's inaccuracies in a separate interview, campaign co-chair Sam Clovis said, "I don't know where Katrina gets her information."
- Trump adviser Roger Stone tweeted that Khan's father, Khizr, who spoke at last week's Democratic National Convention, is a "Muslim Brotherhood agent." He acknowledged a day later that this is not true — linking him instead to another extremist.
- Scottie Nell Hughes, another CNN commentator, rebutted Khizr Khan's assertion that Trump has "sacrificed nothing" by arguing that the real estate magnate sacrificed two marriages to be at work, creating jobs for others.
- Denying a report that Trump asked during a national security briefing why the United States can't use nuclear weapons, campaign chairman Paul Manafort said "those security briefings haven't started yet." A moment later, confusingly, he said, "I was in the meeting. It didn't happen."
Again, that's just in the past few days. It has been a long campaign.
But here's the thing: These provocative, impulsive, facts-be-damned surrogates aren't just freelancing. If the job of a surrogate is to represent the candidates they support, then they're actually doing a pretty good job. They're pushing past standard political boundaries, relying on non sequiturs and making assertions that are demonstrably untrue. They're doing so confidently, attacking the "dishonest" media when criticism comes. It's the Donald Trump school of messaging management.
Recall that Trump used to pose as his own spokesman in phone interviews under the fake names John Barron and John Miller. Ideally, the people who speak for Donald Trump would actually be Donald Trump. The most important quality in a Trump surrogate, it seems, is an ability to channel the man himself.
"I do the research. I've read all of his books. I've studied his old speeches," Hughes told me in May, describing how she prepares to represent Trump. "I watch as many of his live speech as I can, just because I do want to get to know him. It's not just getting hair and makeup done, going on air and reciting talking points."
Hughes is a student of Trump. What more could the GOP standard-bearer possibly want from someone he trusts to present his point of view?
And so it's very likely Trump does not agree with the idea that his surrogates need to straighten out and get on message. He probably thinks they're doing just fine.
One hitch: "The problem with these surrogates is that they are not Trump," said David Wilson, associate dean for social sciences at the University of Delaware, who specializes in political communication and psychology.
Does Trump's freewheeling style — central to his appeal — work for others? Not according to Wilson, who said the billionaire's surrogates "are not very effective at gaining or reinforcing support."
"Many of my political science colleagues have noted that Trump does not have a steady stream of seasoned attack dogs," Wilson added. "Instead, it’s all about him and his brand. This ultimately hurts his candidacy, in terms of showing an ability to lead."
Hughes noted that among surrogates there are different levels of coordination with the campaign. For those like her and Lewandowski, who back Trump but do not work for him, there is greater freedom to formulate arguments than there is for Trump employees such as Pierson and Manafort. (Since we spoke in May, Hughes has signed a contract with CNN. The cable channel did not grant permission to interview Hughes again for this story.)
"Every campaign has their surrogate talking points," Hughes told me. "They're not telling me exactly what to do with it. And they know that — they know that just 'cuz they send me something, it doesn't mean I'm going to go with it, 'cuz I rarely do. They're not going to tell me, 'You can say this, you can't say that.' That's not how this campaign operates, especially with their surrogates." And not with the candidate, either.