Opinion: We used to be part of Trump’s press team. That’s why we can see through his post-conviction spin

Editor’s Note: Stephanie Grisham served as White House press secretary and communications director in President Donald Trump’s administration. She was also Chief of Staff to first lady Melania Trump. Alyssa Farah Griffin, a CNN political commentator, formerly served as communications director in the Trump White House, as press secretary to Vice President Mike Pence and press secretary in the US Department of Defense. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.



CNN
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In a political season when many Americans have chosen to tune out the news, tens of millions of people turned to cable and broadcast TV to learn about former President Donald Trump’s fate following his historic criminal trial.

Courtesy Stephanie Grisham

Stephanie Grisham

Courtesy ABC

Alyssa Farah Griffin

Trump added to his lengthy resume of presidential firsts last week: first president to be impeached twice, first president to refuse to concede an election loss; first president to try to overturn the results of a democratic election; first modern president to refuse to attend his successor’s inauguration; first former president to be indicted on 88 felony counts. And now, he’s the first president to be criminally convicted on 34 felony charges by a jury.

While it doesn’t appear that a large swath of Americans watched TV coverage of the trial in real time, we know that as many as 15 million people tuned in in the hours after Trump was found guilty. Many viewers who turned to right-wing media outlets like Fox News and Newsmax were given exceptionally coordinated spin that the conviction was, in fact, a massive boon to Trump.

According to right-wing talking points, the president’s trial was rigged — it was a witch hunt orchestrated by an activist Democrat prosecutor at President Joe Biden’s behest. But the truth is, the case was heard by a grand jury of average Americans who decided to pursue it. The guilty verdicts against Trump were rendered after a trial by a jury of 12 of Trump’s peers.

As Elie Honig — a former federal prosecutor and CNN senior legal analyst — wrote in New York Magazine recently — there’s a legitimate debate around whether the case should ever have been brought. But there is no credible argument that Biden had any hand in it.

Still, Republican lawmakers and the former president’s MAGA surrogates have taken to the airwaves to allege that the president played a role in the outcome of the trial — a lie that they claim has helped the Trump campaign raise record amounts of cash in the hours following the verdict, mostly from first time donors. (We’ll need to see the FEC filings for confirmation of that.)

Trump’s supporters would also have us believe that countless people who never voted for him before are suddenly moved to support him because of his criminal conviction in a scheme involving falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment for an affair with a pornstar.

Now, it is very possible that a lot of Trump voters gave to his campaign in outrage after Thursday’s verdict. We both know many voters like that — we have them in our families. We find it far harder to believe, however, that fence-sitters suddenly felt compelled to support Trump because he was convicted of a crime.

Still, by Friday morning, just hours following the verdict, the Republican narrative was baked: The criminal conviction of Donald Trump, the line went, would propel him to victory in 2024. Wrap it up, game over.

We know better, however, than to be sold a bill of goods. Reality looks very different. Voters should always be wary of Trump World and right-wing media messaging.

Take it from us: We both spent considerable amounts of time in our careers running the communications operation in Trump’s White House. We were well-versed in crafting talking points that would resonate with the public, and in pressing Trump’s allies and surrogates to parrot them to the media. We were experts, as well, in briefing lawmakers on exactly what they needed to say to support Trump, with the goal of creating a very loud, unified narrative within the GOP.

We both know the very real limitations of the rightwing media messaging machine — and the often-flagrant dishonesty of Donald Trump. From the inevitable “red wave” to much of Trump’s 2020 campaign messaging,  spin — even very good spin — has its limitations.  Trump and his acolytes may be about to find that out.

A survey by ABC/Ipsos revealed that 52% of independents and 16% of Republicans believe Trump should suspend his campaign as a result of his criminal conviction. That 16% of Republicans broadly lines up with the percentage of people who have voted for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in numerous Republican primaries, even though she pulled out of the presidential race weeks ago. It was a phenomenon we saw in GOP primaries from Florida to Pennsylvania to Indiana. According to the survey, Americans say 50% to 27% that the verdict was correct.

The MAGA messaging machine is extremely loud and — as we can attest — it can be scary to speak out against. But 2020 and GOP primary results suggest that when voters are alone in the voting booth — without fear of being doxed or shamed, without fear of violence or bullying — moderates and independents will vote their conscience and not be swayed by the loudest voices. They are the key voting bloc that will decide this election.

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Don’t get us wrong: Trump’s conviction has hardened his support among those who were already with him. We fear it will even further radicalize the most extreme elements of his base.

But the notion that the main message he needs to win over swing voters in battleground states is that he is, for the umpteenth time, a “victim” of something, or that the system is “rigged” against him feels like not only a stretch, but a real miscalculation. Voters are simply not that gullible.

We know Trump well enough to be able to predict that he will allow his fury over last week’s verdicts to eclipse smart campaign messaging on issues voters care about, such as strengthening the economy, fighting inflation and securing the border.

Instead, true to form, Trump’s messaging since the verdict has been about little more than rage and retribution. And we all remember how that worked out for him in 2020.


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