Raj Shah: Former press secretary speaks about Donald Trump’s presidency

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Raj Shah worked at the heart of government under an unpredictable president, tasked with trying to manage and defend his message as top spokesman in the White House press office.

He is now working for Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm with offices in Florida and Washington.

In his first broadcast interview since departing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Mr Shah acknowledged there were times when neither he nor other aides knew what was coming from a president who would sometimes announce policies through a single tweet.

“The president used social media in a way that was unprecedented, and may never be used again,” he told me. “He was making news on a daily basis.

“More often than not, the staff were aware to a large degree about where things were going… Yeah, but I mean… at times it caught us a little bit off-guard, and we kind of had to roll with it.

“And that’s sort of the nature of this White House, this president. Everybody kind of rolls with the fact that he can make decisions at any time that he deems fit.”

Tonight the president is gearing up for his State of the Union speech – an on-again off-again set-piece drama – which Mr Mr Trump was initially dis-invited from during the height of the shutdown.

I asked Mr Shah why his unorthodox former boss still cared about such a conventional piece of stagecraft.

“I think it’s conventional,” he said, “but I think it’s also a unique thing to the presidency that plays to his advantage.

“He’ll have an hour, maybe hour-and-a-half prime time fixated audience that is not going to be taking in his message through the filter of media, cable news or the chattering classes.

“He gets to talk directly to the country and he can make his case in a way that only he is empowered to make.”

Mr Shah served in the White House beginning in January 2017 as deputy assistant to the president, deputy communications director and deputy press secretary and recently helped prepare Justice Brett Kavanaugh for a testing and controversial Senate confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court.

But Mr Shah acknowledges there are things he could have done differently at the White House and things that could have been better managed. It’s a frank admission.

He said: “I mean, probably dozens. I’ll let that go to the people who read my emails 10 years from now, when they’re released by the presidential records folks.

“I think, look… the pace and speed of press coverage today – the pace and speed with which we have to react to these issues – forces us make lots of snap-second decisions, and there’s plenty that you could have done a better job of.

“We did the best job with the information we have, and then have to move on.”

He says that he’s also very proud of “some of the big things we were able to do on tax reform, on the Supreme Court, on regulatory issues”.

With a deeply divided county, an intensely partisan landscape in Washington and the term “fake news” regularly bandied about, Mr Shah does concede that it’s always good to see the temperature turned down a bit.

He accepted the risk to journalists’ lives in such a heated atmosphere, too. But his former boss Sarah Huckabee Sanders, he said, deserved some sympathy, too.

He said: “She can’t go out in Washington DC without being accosted by someone. That’s a terrible situation.

“She has three young children. My heart goes out to her. And I don’t think there’s a lot of sympathy or concern about her welfare.

“She is the first White House press secretary that’s been required to have Secret Service protection in the history of the country.”

That may be an unpopular view – but there is no doubt, whatever side of the fence you sit on, whether you’re on the political pulpit or reporting what you hear, everything feels a little less safe and secure.

(c) Sky News 2019: Raj Shah: Former press secretary speaks about Donald Trump’s presidency

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