Returning to the West Wing just a month after impeachment, one of President Donald Trump’s closest advisers found a presidency in crisis: a deadly disease outbreak, a tumbling stock market and a White House struggling to form a clear message about how it was confronting a quickly escalating threat.
For Hope Hicks, it marked a challenge unlike any other — trying to develop a communications strategy for the president to carry with a wartime footing in an election year. As one of the few aides Trump implicitly trusts, the former White House communications director urged the president to act as a frontman for the coronavirus crisis — a leader who could offer calming messages, critical health information and important updates on the progress of the White House’s response efforts, instead of delegating those responsibilities to health officials or the vice president.
It’s an approach in perpetual flux, thanks largely to a mercurial president who acts on his own instincts, prefers the spotlight in the crisis and offers up rhetoric often designed more for his base than the masses in the midst of an unprecedented situation.
Now Hicks, 31, faces the difficult task of formulating a new path for Trump out of an emergency that shows no sign of abating, even as the economy starts to reopen in a handful of states. She must position the president in a way he wants to be viewed as the man in charge, while guarding against the threat of overexposure that many aides and allies say poses a substantial political risk to Trump and his party just six months before a general election.
The daily briefings are no longer seen inside the White House as the most effective format for Trump, so she and others must develop other venues and weigh when he can again start to travel to events that so energize him. Internally, aides believe his outsize platform can break through the clutter of news — even if the briefings do not end up being his preferred medium in the coming weeks.
“She understands the president is the message. It cannot be outsourced to anyone,” said Tony Sayegh, one of Hicks’ friends and a former assistant secretary of the Treasury and close aide to Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “He is at his strongest when he is communicating directly with the public. Her instincts are impeccable and lead to good decisions.”