- Ron Klain wrote in 2017 that it would be “foolish to ignore” how effective Trump’s tactics were.
- Now that he’s Biden’s chief of staff, Klain doesn’t appear to be following Trump’s playbook.
- Tactics that helped Trump shrug off crisis after crisis don’t work for Democrats or Biden.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Nine days before Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president, veteran Democratic strategist Ron Klain penned an op-ed praising the incoming chief executive’s crisis management playbook and pointed to a “new political reality” that he’d ushered into Washington.
It would be “foolish to ignore how often his tactics were effective,” wrote Klain, who served as a senior advisor for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
“The game has changed, and future political players of all stripes—and even corporate message makers, too—will surely want to take at least some tactical pages from the new Trump Playbook,” Klain wrote for POLITICO Magazine.
Now, six weeks into his tenure as White House chief of staff in the Biden administration, Klain doesn’t appear to be following Trump’s playbook at all — at least on the crises the White House has confronted publicly.
Like it or not, the tactics that helped Trump shrug off crisis after crisis don’t work for Democrats, veteran party strategists and political communicators from across the ideological spectrum told Insider.
“Trump was a political unicorn,” former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in an interview this week. “He did stuff and said stuff that nobody else … can get away with.”
So it’s not surprising that President Joe Biden — who campaigned on being the anti-Trump — and his top staffers aren’t openly embracing Trumpian tactics, years after Klain mused about their effectiveness.
There is “some use in the aggressive posture” Klain laid out in the op-ed, “but as a practical matter I don’t see many folks in the White House adopting it in their day-to-day tactics,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic aide who worked for both Sens. Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy while they were colleagues with Biden.
“Democrats still believe in good government and freedom of the press and … at least many aren’t in the habit of denigrating reporters for sport like the previous administration was,” he added.
In January 2017, Trump was considered a “successful, norm-busting politician” and it was “fair enough” for Klain to examine lessons from the previous presidential campaign, said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Third Way think tank.
“After four catastrophic years, culminating in just the disaster of January 6, I don’t think anyone in politics should take any lessons on communication from Trump, and I’m certain that Ron agrees,” added Bennett, who worked with Klain in President Bill Clinton’s White House.
Klain and a White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
5 Trump rules, according to Klain
First, there’s some important context in case anyone forgot that will be helpful for understanding Klain’s 2017 article.
When the former (and future) White House aide’s op-ed published, he was commenting on how Trump had just gone from a twice-divorced New York tabloid fixture and reality TV star into a rookie politician who won the presidential election despite being at the center of constant scandal and controversy. Trump had labeled immigrants from Mexico as “rapists” and mocked GOP Sen. John McCain for being a prisoner during the Vietnam War. He’d encouraged Russian hackers to break US law and steal his Democratic opponent’s emails. He’d gotten caught on a microphone bragging about how he could sexually assault women because of his celebrity.
America had never seen a White House candidate win by doing things the way Trump had done them, and Klain acknowledged as much in writing that anyone who wants to survive a controversy should study “five core postulates” from the president-elect’s new playbook.
- “Always arm allies with an explanation,” even when the candidate’s actions seem “inexplicable.”
- “Never apologize and double down.”
- “Go with your gut, quickly.”
- “You can score points by going to war with the media.”
- “Adapt constantly, disorient your opponents and the media.”
Klain also was careful to note that it remained unclear if the rules Trump had established — shredding the way White House operatives had operated going back to the Ronald Reagan days — would work for anyone other than Trump.
“But it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility too quickly,” he wrote. “While these new rules are particularly suited to Trump, they also reflect a new political reality, different from the one that brought the old set of rules into existence.”
The Biden administration’s controversies so far suggest such rules may be Trump specific.
While Trump attacked practically everyone on Twitter, a plethora of mean tweets brought down Biden’s pick for White House budget chief, Neera Tanden. That’s even after Klain said last month “we’re fighting our guts out” to get her nomination approved. Tanden, a Klain ally, withdrew on Tuesday when it appeared she would fail to win Senate confirmation.
And while Trump brushed off harassment accusations and much worse, Biden White House deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo apologized and later resigned after Vanity Fair reported that he threatened and made sexist remarks to a reporter who was writing about his relationship with a journalist.
“We are committed to striving every day to meet the standard set by the President in treating others with dignity and respect, with civility and with a value for others through our words and our actions,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at the time.
Even Biden, before he launched his presidential bid in 2019, promised to change his behavior and be “more mindful” of people’s personal space after women complained about inappropriate touching. That’s a stark difference from how Trump handled the many accusations of sexual misconduct made against him, namely when he broadly dismissed dozens of allegations as “fabricated.”
Biden during his 2020 presidential campaign forcefully denied a sexual assault allegation made by his former Senate staffer. But he also said at the time that women should be given the benefit of the doubt when they make sexual misconduct allegations.
“Then you have to look at the circumstances and the facts,” Biden added. “And the facts in this case do not exist — they never happened.”
The times they are a-different
Democrats “are more than anything a victim of the bars that they set for themselves,” Spicer said. He pointed to Ducklo’s departure after Biden had made a clear statement that he’d fire staffers who were disrespectful on the job.
“I hate to say it, but Republicans didn’t set themselves up with the same set of bars,” Spicer added. “From a purely political standpoint, you’re not having your own words thrown back against you.”
But Spicer also suggested that the Biden White House had followed the Trump playbook, in a way, after Ducklo threatened the Politico reporter. Ducklo’s conversation with the journalist occurred on January 20; Ducklo first got suspended, but then he resigned after the Vanity Fair report published on February 12.
A common refrain among Democrats asked this week about Klain’s 2017 op-ed: Times are very, very different now.
“It was January 2017, we’d all just gotten our clocks cleaned,” a veteran Democratic strategist told Insider. “We’re all trying to figure out what it is, what we can learn.”
Fast forward to 2021, and Democrats aren’t as admiring of the brazen political strategies that vaulted Trump into the White House. The Republican businessman’s strategy focused during his first campaign on winning the 24/7 news cycle, but it had “electoral consequences,” said the veteran strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Other Republican candidates “that have been Trump copycats have fallen on their face,” the strategist said. “And that’s because you can’t emulate this guy, he was a freak of nature.”
Biden ‘can’t just be a street fighter’
Democrats have long wrestled with what’s appropriate when it comes to dirty or negative campaign tactics.
Some party stalwarts argue candidates should be more aggressive. Headed into the 2018 midterms, Hillary Clinton said “you cannot be civil” with Republicans until Democrats win back the House or Senate. “Until then, the only thing that the Republicans seem to recognize and respect is strength,” she said during a CNN interview.
That same year, former Attorney General Eric Holder gave a new spin to former First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2016 motto “when they go low, we go high.” Holder said, “No. When they go low, we kick ’em. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”
Biden, however, drew criticism from the left for his calls during the 2020 campaign for a return to bipartisanship while facing off against an incumbent president who had already been impeached once in the US House for testing the bounds of American law and the Constitution.
“When you’re the uniter…you can’t just be a street fighter the way that Trump was. You can’t just be a bully,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a Democratic strategist at MVMT Communications who worked on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
The $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package Biden put forward suggests Democrats are “learning from past mistakes and trying to go big,” Ganapathy said. Then again, the new president and his team aren’t showing a willingness to “go to the mat” on certain policies and push back against a recent Senate procedural decision that blocked a vote on raising the federal minimum wage to $15.
“We haven’t seen that level of fight from most of the Senate Democratic caucus but then also the White House,” he said.
Democrats say Biden’s style of governance so far bears no resemblance to the lessons Klain drew from Trump’s tactics.
“They’ve been very consistent in driving a message,” Manley said of the Biden White House. “Another one that stuck out at me is ‘never apologize.’ President Biden is a man of humility, unlike the past president. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him apologize if he’s clearly in the wrong.”
Democrats can use the playbook Klain wrote about “to a limited extent, but mostly not,” Bennett said. For instance, it often makes sense to arm allies with an explanation and going with your gut can be helpful, he said.
But Democrats generally don’t engage in public warfare with the media as a strategy or talk about “fake news,” he said. Never apologizing and doubling down doesn’t work for Democrats “because we’re not shameless, we’re not willing to simply lie,” he said.
There’s also a difference between campaigning and governing.
Klain “is saying that Trump got away with a lot, and maybe we should try to do that, too,” Bennett said. “And I think in the context of a campaign, maybe that’s advice that could be taken in limited ways by Democrats. But there is no chance that Ron Klain, the chief of staff to the president, would ever think that Joe Biden should try to operate that way as president.”
Political insiders said they recognize that Trump’s style is hardly Biden’s style. Klain, they note, is taking his cues from the commander in chief.
“Trump was at the top,” Spicer said. And “you knew everybody below him was going to follow his lead.”
The dynamic with Biden is “totally different,” Spicer added. Biden is “not out there fighting the fights. … Trump was personally engaged.”