White House veterans borrow from coaches to help House GOP prep for the press

By | April 26, 2021

ORLANDO — Two former White House press secretaries offered House Republicans some advice Monday on dealing with the media: Don’t wing it.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Donald Trump’s former press secretary and a GOP candidate in 2022’s Arkansas gubernatorial race, joined Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s White House press secretary, in briefing GOP lawmakers at the House Republican retreat in the Sunshine State.

Their bottom-line message to members, according to multiple sources, was the value of preparation for media interviews.

During their remarks to lawmakers, the two veteran conservative flacks played clips of athletes and coaches meeting the press to help hammer home the importance of strong media strategy. Among the coaches featured in their presentations were those from Auburn University and the University of Kansas.

It was the second moment of college athletics influencing the House GOP’s message during their three-day gathering here: Lou Holtz, the former University of Notre Dame football coach whom Trump gave the Medal of Freedom, spoke to Republicans on Sunday night.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also launched seven task forces designed to help shape the party’s messaging on policy. Rep. Patrick McHenry (N.C.) is set to lead a task force on jobs and the economy, with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) taking on technology and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) exploring “the future of American freedoms.” Rep. Garret Graves (La.) was tapped to lead a task force on energy, climate and conservation, with Rep. John Katko (N.Y.) helming one on domestic security, Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas) focused on China, in addition to a health task force co-led by Reps. Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Brett Guthrie (Ky.).

Members will be able to join two task forces that are in their areas of interest, GOP conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview Monday. House Republicans are aiming to shape that work into more concrete groups that will ultimately shape legislation as a broader strategy for the party’s midterm election agenda.

During this week’s series of closed-door meetings, Republican leaders are hoping to focus on policy rather than personality. That’s no easy task for a GOP conference buffeted by controversies since the year began, from its internal divide over whether to challenge the certification of Trump’s loss to the sex trafficking probe that’s ensnared Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to the flap over Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) incendiary social media posts.

Still, GOP leaders were striking a coordinated note as they seek to counter President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats at large.

“Both with respect to Biden and with respect to Pelosi, our focus is on substance and our focus is on policies, and I think that’s actually really important for us going forward,” Cheney said. “We have to get away from incentivizing … the social media stars, away from incentivizing the toxicity, and we need to really focus on encouraging people to debate ideas.”

Republicans rolled into their retreat projecting confidence that they will be able to take back the House next year. They won back more seats in 2020 than they expected, thanks to a class of women and minority recruits who have slimmed down Pelosi’s majority.

The GOP is now hoping to have history and redistricting on their side this coming year, barring any unforeseen obstacles. Republicans argue that Biden and his party have handed them messaging opportunities to use heading into 2022 on issues such as immigration, taxes and policing.

Cheney, however, said Republicans can’t take their strong prospects for granted.

“We really have to focus on understanding what happened in 2020 and understanding why we lost voters in 2020 and remedy that,” she said.

That means “reaching out to suburban women, college-educated white voters, and better outreach efforts in minority communities,” she said. Cheney added that Republicans should be honest about the falsehoods embedded in conservative messaging that amplified the former president’s baseless claims of widespread election fraud.

“We have to be honest about what happened in 2020, so we can really learn the lessons of that — and that is, the election was not stolen,” she said. Cheney was the most high-profile House Republican to vote to impeach Trump earlier this year over the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. She’s faced conservative pushback for that vote but continued to rack up some wins in recent weeks — and told the New York Post in Orlando on Monday that she wouldn’t “rule anything in or out” when it comes to the 2024 presidential race.

Beyond Sanders and Fleischer, other high-profile speakers will address Republicans at their retreat, which started Sunday and runs through Tuesday morning. Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, briefed members Monday along with Dan Conston of the Congressional Leadership Fund. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel spoke during Monday’s lunch session.

Melanie Zanona contributed.