Media bashing has become one of the organizing principles of Donald Trump’s presidency. But behind the scenes, the Trump machine is eagerly promoting the nuggets of positive press they receive from the very outlets the president seeks to discredit.
The White House director of rapid response, Andy Hemming, 31, spends his days immersed in cable television, Twitter, print and online media to suss out positive stories about Trump, which he blasts back out to his list of more than 1,000 influencers — mainly reporters, but also television talking heads — who together craft the overall story of Trump’s presidency.
There’s nothing new about an administration trying to promote its wins. But in the Trump White House, where Hemming’s job is not to discredit the mainstream media but to celebrate stories the administration likes, it can seem like he is trying to bail out a sinking boat with a teacup.
And it’s a role that feels out of sync with Trump’s constant attacks on the press. Trump spent the first day of his summer break Monday trying to discredit mainstream news organizations. “Hard to believe that with 24/7 #Fake News on CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, NYTIMES & WAPO, the Trump base is getting stronger!” Trump tweeted Monday morning from Bedminster, N.J., where he is installed on his golf course for a two-week vacation.
He followed up later on a wet, unconducive-to-golfing afternoon, with a honed Twitter attack launched at his favorite target: “How much longer will the failing nytimes, with its big losses and massive unfunded liability (and non-existent sources), remain in business?”
A New York Times spokesperson said the business is actually growing in profit, income, revenues and paid subscriptions.
In July, Trump posted a video of himself wrestling to the ground a man with a CNN logo obscuring his face — a post that has since been retweeted more than 370,000 times. But Hemming that same month highlighted clips from the network, including one of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein telling anchor Wolf Blitzer she saw no evidence of collusion between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign.
“They don’t always get it wrong,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of mainstream news outlets like the New York Times and CNN. “But for every one good story we push out, there are probably 150 really bad process stories, or hit pieces, on the administration. We think a lot of times, the stories that we push out have been given very little coverage.”
On July 18, for instance, while Trump tweeted about the “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin” – he called the story “sick” – Hemming was highlighting, to his list a story from the allegedly ailing Grey Lady.
“The New York Times’ Carl Hulse has a solid explainer on the Senate Democrats’ unprecedented effort to block President Trump’s nominees,” Hemming wrote, with a link to the story. Earlier in July, Hemming emailed out a New York Times piece that he called “a good article on how small businesses across the country are cheering President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accord.”
“It’s an important role,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign spokesman who worked closely with Hemming from the 2016 war room in Trump Tower. “There’s so much good news that’s coming out of this administration, that we have to continue pushing all of these positive messages ourselves to remind people there’s a lot going on.” (Miller is now a paid contributor on CNN.)
Hemming, who is paid $89,000 a year, is a career Republican campaign operative who until he entered Trump’s orbit had worked for establishment GOP figures like Meg Whitman, during her failed run for governor in California; Mitt Romney, during his unsuccessful 2012 bid for president; and Greg Abbott during his successful run for Texas Governor. Last year, he worked for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign before going to the RNC and being embedded in Trump Tower for the final 100 days of the general election.
He’s always been a behind-the-scenes operative, associates said, but for the first few weeks of the administration, Hemming was toiling, perhaps for the first time in his life, in total obscurity. Hemming would blast out his carefully curated clips, sometimes multiple times a day, with the goal of driving more positive news coverage.
But for weeks, sources inside the White House said, no one informed him that the White House IT system could not handle an email going out such a big list, and that all of his emails were all being blocked by a firewall and reaching an audience of zero readers. That glitch has since been corrected, and the administration thinks Hemming is helping to slowly change the course of the coverage it gets.
“Andy does an incredible job of finding those hidden gems and trying to amplify those positive messages,” Sanders said. “He’s quick and I would say he has a very good pulse on what’s hot, but also on what wasn’t hot but should be.”
He declined to comment for this story.
The fact-checker column in the newspaper Trump now refers to disparagingly as the “Amazon Washington Post” has been highlighted by Hemming and the rapid response team on multiple occasions, for example, for knocking down misleading statements about Trump’s policies made by lawmakers like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kamala Harris, also a California Democrat.
“What makes it so audacious and confusing is that no president has been so outspoken — and outrageous — about impeaching mainstream news outlets,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, who is also a paid CNN analyst. “If these outlets are ‘fake,’ then why should we believe that their positive reporting about the president and the administration is real? It’s a tacit acknowledgement that, despite the president’s calculated and persistent assaults, these news sources are very credible.”
Also undercutting Trump’s constant assaults, Axelrod noted, is how Trump frequently participates in interviews with reporters representing the very news organization he rails against.
Others warned that to take Trump literally is to misunderstand the president. “Understanding Trump means you have to have a healthy dose of humor and skepticism about the spoken word,” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to President George W. Bush.
Of the White House’s efforts to promote stories from the same organizations the president discredits, Fleischer pointed to a moment last March, when former White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the monthly jobs numbers produced by the labor department that Trump had previously discredited “may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”
“How do you square it?” asked Fleischer. “You square it with a smile.”