Nicholas Tomaino: The ends don’t mitigate the means

Wednesday, February 15, 2017 - 10:25am

“Make America Great Again” was President Donald Trump’s slogan, which resonated with so many this past fall, and was, in part, his justification for signing seven executive orders and 11 memos during his first couple of weeks in office. Making the United States safe was the objective behind his recent executive order to temporarily block immigration from seven countries previously identified by former President Barack Obama and Congress as dangerous places for which reliable vetting was not possible. 

The messages surrounding the order, and the process by which it was rolled out, however, overshadowed its objective. So too did Trump’s tweet that the opinion from a “so-called judge” to grant a temporary restraining order was ridiculous and dangerous. Indeed, many of his tweets play into a growing narrative that he is defensive, sophomoric and careless.

On Meet the Press, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute downplayed the impact of a contentious phone conversation with Australia’s prime minister over an agreement by Obama to accept more than 1,000 refugees from Australia annually. Pletka, who is of Australian descent, acknowledged that Trump may have been justified in questioning the merits of the deal, but he needs to rethink how he’s handling it. Indeed, he seems to underestimate the importance of process and underappreciate the public outrage that his words evoke in the absence of appropriate context.

For example, in a pre-Super Bowl interview, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly asked Trump if he respected Putin and Trump replied, “I do respect him.” When O’Reilly said Putin is a “killer,” Trump said: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?” This statement, of course, led to significant outrage, and prompted Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, to allege that Trump was asserting moral equivalency between the United States and Russia.

When it comes to executing his vision and enacting change, Trump clearly does not appreciate that style, rather than merely substance, is important. While content is critical, so too is how he communicates his message. He may substantively be advancing an agenda that he was elected to execute, but the process by which he moves forward — including the conditions surrounding its execution — should be communicated in a way that not only satisfies his base, but attempts to mollify his adversaries.

Though it was pleasant to see a room filled with support when Neil Gorsuch was nominated for the Supreme Court, the rubber meets the road when Trump’s messages reach those who did not vote for him and who are unlikely to set aside his words and lack of style in the short term, simply in hope that he may deliver results in the long term. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, in an interview with Chuck Todd, minimized the impact of Trump’s style, and suggested that polarization and division in the United States will diminish as results from Trump’s policies improve the economy.

While Trump’s approval may increase over time, only Trump himself can expedite the process by revising his style and caring more about the “how” of delivering his messages. Peggy Noonan, in a recent article titled “In Trump’s Washington, Nothing Feels Stable,” recommends, “You have to help your allies in the agencies and on the Hill know, understand and be able to defend what you’re doing.” I would add that Trump also needs to help the American public better understand the substance of his plans before he rolls things out too hastily. He is the commander in chief, and may have the ultimate say on certain matters, but getting buy-in, at the very least, may require a modicum of dialogue and explanation. We need to appreciate his optics and trust that the process is legitimate — that he avails himself of his advisers and appreciates both the upsides and downsides of his decisions.

In my estimation, Trump would be well advised to limit his tweets to statements of fact rather than speculation or derision. It’s not enough that those who voted for him might appreciate his intent. He must be deliberately concerned with how those who did not vote for him appreciate his tweets. Furthermore, tweeting cannot provide the necessary context — the optics — to ensure clarity. Where emotions run strong and the stakes are high, dialogue is the only way to deal with difference of opinion. Such crucial conversations need to be authentic, measured, honest and bi-directional. In this light, Twitter is not the venue, nor are diatribes by designees such as Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway.

Further, Trump and his team must refrain from reporting alternative facts. In the event that they do, however, as was the case recently when Conway erroneously referred to a massacre in Bowling Green to defend the immigrant ban, they must recant publicly and accept accountability for misreporting. Going forward, Trump himself needs to regularly meet with the press and present himself with equanimity and empathy. If he has any hope of, or interest in, changing his image among naysayers, he must accept that his actions create his reality. 

In an interview this past weekend with George Stephanopoulos on “This Week,” Stephen Miller ultimately pushed the Trump administration in the right direction. Miller, a senior policy adviser to Trump, displayed great composure in the face of a heated exchange. When probing questions outreached his jurisdiction, he cautiously referred to another, more appropriate member of the administration. Though his authoritative stance may have been perceived as yet more "Trump-like" authoritarianism, from my perspective, it was clear and far from overstated, despite Stephanopoulos’ repeated attempts to provoke him. However, when discussing the notion of voter fraud, Miller continuously equivocated. By making assertions without providing cogent supporting evidence, he provided yet another example of what Trump must avoid.

To truly get more done than what was achieved over the last eight years, Trump needs to present himself not as an autocratic leader, but as a collaborative, emotionally intelligent one. He needs to actively solicit feedback from his close advisers regarding how effective or ineffective his messaging might be. When given new information, he needs to pivot, adjust and recant as needed. These are just the beginning steps to establishing trust with the electorate.

As has been said before in one form or another, he may go more quickly alone, but he will go further together. Making America great again will require a presidential leader who appreciates how critical the process of leadership is.

Nicholas Tomaino can be reached at ntomaino@umich.edu.