WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is pulling out all the stops — and props — to try to shift the subject to more positive messages.
As part of a weeklong focus on American-made goods, Trump has posed in a firetruck, donned a white Stetson and chatted about domestically-produced pillows. But the painstakingly arranged “Made in America” events were largely drowned out by the tumult surrounding health care legislation in the Senate.
It’s not the first time Trump’s team has adopted a weekly theme in hopes of managing its message and shifting attention away from the ongoing Russia investigation and the struggles to repeal the Obama health care law.
But while this week has offered the White House’s most creative use of visual aids, it may be headed for the same fate as past themed efforts, which often couldn’t compete with a rapid-fire news cycle and Trump’s own talents for distraction.
“This White House has two things going against it,” said Republican consultant Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid. “One is they’re trying to talk about theme weeks in the middle of a very crowded news cycle. And two it would appear not everyone got the memo on what the theme is going to be.”
True to form, Trump himself strayed from the message even before the first “Made in America” event on Monday, defending his son Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter amid questions about a meeting Trump’s eldest son had with a Russian lawyer during last year’s presidential campaign.
Trump has also plunged into the health care debate. On Wednesday, he called GOP senators to the White House and said they should not leave town for the August recess without sending him an “Obamacare” repeal bill.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer called “Made in America” week a success, saying that the administration had received strong response in local media and online. He also said that the White House can focus on a theme while still working on issues such as health care, noting that “we can walk and chew gum.”
“We have a great story to tell on Made in America. We’ll continue that theme all week long,” Spicer said. He said the suggestion that past theme weeks had struggled was “unbelievably false,” adding that “it shows what a bubble some of the Washington reporters live in.”
Past theme weeks have included policy speeches and big-name roundtables.
For “infrastructure week,” Trump visited Ohio to pitch his plans for upgrading deteriorating bridges and roads. But the effort competed for attention with fired FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony, as well as Trump’s tweets about the London mayor and his travel ban.
During “technology week,” the White House welcomed top CEOs — including Tim Cook of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon— for a brainstorming session. Trump later traveled to Iowa to tour a community college, and followed that up with a raucous campaign rally.
In “energy week,” Trump touted a “golden era of American energy” during a speech. But his decision to target cable talk show host Mika Brzezinski on Twitter diverted attention, as did the unsuccessful push for a Senate vote on health-care legislation.
Trump embraced the “Made in America” theme at a kickoff event Monday that featured products from all 50 states displayed inside and outside the White House. Speaking to assembled business owners and executives, he promised that “restoring American manufacturing will not only restore our wealth, it will restore our pride and pride in ourselves.”
At a “Made in America” round table at the White House Wednesday, Trump spoke with companies that produced goods in America, including Mike Lindell, founder of My Pillow. Trump said he had bought some of the pillows and proclaimed them “very good.”
“I’ve slept so much better ever since,” he said.
Trump was to attend the commissioning of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford on Saturday. Another week, dubbed “American Dreams,” is scheduled for later in the month.
Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said in a statement that he was “encouraged that the White House is talking about manufacturing this week.” But he added: “if we really want to support and grow American manufacturing we need more than theme weeks and slogans; we need new ideas, new policies, and real leadership from the White House.”
Focusing on a specific theme is not a new communications tactic, and it sometimes can be a valuable approach.
“In the Bush administration we had theme weeks pretty regularly, normally tied around an ongoing legislative push or trying to bring attention to an issue we felt wasn’t being talked about enough,” said Conant. “It’s a very good exercise to get everyone on the same page talking about the same thing.”
But there are limits to what they can accomplish.
“They take a lot of staff work and they rarely move the needle,” said Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration domestic policy adviser now at the Brookings Institution.
And sometimes outside events can give theme weeks an unfortunate subtext.
Next week, several members of Trump’s inner circle, including son Donald Trump Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, are all scheduled to appear before Senate committees to talk about the 2016 election, including possible collusion with Russian officials. The concurrent theme week at the White House will be “American Heroes.”