Sean Spicer skulking around in the dark outside the White House, hiding from reporters behind bushes before finally huddling with them. Kellyanne Conway returning from the communications hinterlands to tilt swords with Anderson Cooper on CNN.
And Donald Trump topping it all off with his trademark morning tweets, predicting everyone will soon be thanking him.
Each was a potential scene-stealer in the dramatic non-fiction miniseries that premiered Tuesday evening as the White House struggled to explain the abrupt termination of FBI Director James Comey.
It’s too early to tell whether the surprise plot twist will have any lasting effect on Trump or his administration, but the early reviews for Act 1 are in.
And for public relations experts in Chicago, Spicer’s performance was especially jaw dropping.
Rick Jasculca, who served as advance man for Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton before opening a PR firm, bluntly blurted his reaction: “Flabbergasted.”
Dennis Culloton, who headed up former Republican Governor George Ryan’s press team, has guided the Ricketts family through their nascent ownership of the Cubs and teaches a crisis communications class to journalism students at the University of Illinois, also offered up a one-word analysis: “Inexplicable.”
An excerpt from a Washington Post story captures Spicer struggling with his craft when a group of reporters finally was able to pepper him with questions Tuesday evening:
“When’s the last time Trump and Comey spoke? ‘Uh, I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s some — I don’t know. I don’t know,’ he said.
“What were the three occasions on which the president says Comey assured him that he was not under investigation? ‘I don’t — we can follow — I can try, yeah,’ he said.
“How long did the president deliberate? ‘I don’t, I don’t … I can look at the tick-tock. I know that he was presented with that today. I’m not sure what time,’ he said.”
Culloton called the White House press secretary a valuable learning tool.
“We’ve been talking about Spicer all semester,” Culloton said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been through a time where there’s been so many epic teachable moments.”
Most shocking was the woeful lack of preparedness.
“It’s the job of the communications team to do the same as reporters: assemble facts into a coherent narrative,” Culloton said. “None of that seems to be what happened.”
“It is basically public affairs malpractice sort of on every level of managing a difficult situation,” Jasculca said.
“If you’re going to be doing something that is clearly going to be this controversial, you go through a list of tough questions before you pull the trigger so you can anticipate and handle in an intelligent way questions that will be put forth,” he said.
“Everyone I know who has known Sean [Spicer], they say back in his previous job he was an honorable guy and worked hard. Clearly he is in over his head here,” Jasculca said.
Conway, who sparred with Cooper on CNN Tuesday night and Chris Cuomo Wednesday morning, didn’t help the situation, Jasculca said.
The White House counselor accused Cuomo of “insulting” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein when Cuomo questioned whether he was told to write his report on Comey, and she said it was “inappropriate” to ask when Trump would name a new FBI chief. The night before she quibbled with Cooper about whether he used the word “Democrats.”
“Kellyanne Conway gives the impression of being out of control when she gives interviews,” Jasculca said. “It’s not helpful.”
Thom Serafin, who worked as a reporter and political strategist on both sides of the aisle before opening a PR firm in Chicago took pity on the uninformed Spicer.
“You’re being thrown off the cliff and hoping the parachute opens,” he said of facing reporters without being given all the facts.
“They continue to put him out there unequipped to handle the job that he’s supposed to be doing. He’s clearly not in the room where the decisions are being made,” Serafin said.
Larry Stuelpnagel, a Northwestern University journalism professor who worked as a political reporter before entering academia, also had a hard time putting Spicer’s performance into words.
“I never saw an event in my 14 years covering politics in New Jersey that was handled as poorly as this,” he said.
“It was certainly handled very unprofessionally and ham handed,” Stuelpnagel said. “This was just crazy.”
Taking the PR initiative into his own hands, Trump tried to shape the narrative himself, weighing in with a string of Tweets Wednesday morning.
The president defended his decision and lambasted the Democrats for criticizing him.
“Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike,” Trump tweeted. “When things calm down, they will be thanking me!”
Said Jasculca: “I think that it’s been established that the president gets himself in trouble when he goes on these tweet storms. I don’t know if the people closest to him are able to have any influence.”