WASHINGTON – Hamburg native Michael Dubke sounds like he has no regrets upon leaving his job as White House communications director after only three months.
But other Republican operatives regret that he didn’t get much of chance to inject some discipline into a White House messaging operation that has careened from crisis to crisis amid unvetted tweets from the commander in chief.
Dubke, who submitted his resignation May 18 but agreed to remain in place through President Trump's recent overseas trip, remained upbeat after news of his pending departure broke on Tuesday.
“I am so grateful for having the opportunity to serve in this administration and to do the work I have been doing. I do feel like I made a difference,” Dubke told The Buffalo News in a brief interview. “I decided it was a better move for me personally (to resign), and that I could assist this administration from the outside.”
Other GOP insiders, though, portrayed Dubke as doomed from the start: a widely respected mainstream Republican distrusted by the alt-right and undermined by President Trump’s impulsive management style.
A Republican consultant who knows Dubke, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Dubke was placed in an impossible situation working for a president who destroys the administration's message.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a Clarence Republican who calls Dubke a friend, said: “Mike Dubke is a confident, successful private sector guy who excels in the specialties of media buying (campaign ad placement) and crisis communications. He’s a well-liked, solid, steady guy.”
For his part, Dubke said: “I’m comfortable in knowing the folks at the White House appreciated the job that I did.”
A graduate of Hamburg High School and Hamilton College, Dubke previously ran Crossroads Media, which billed itself as “one of the major media placement firms on the national scene.” Dubke also was one of the partners in Black Rock Group, a conservative political consulting firm named after the Buffalo neighborhood.
Trump named Dubke to the post in February after several other people – including Jason Miller, who handled communications for the Trump presidential campaign – turned it down.
Tasked with planning the president’s messaging through press outreach, social media, travel and other means, Dubke faced a challenge unknown to his predecessors in the job: a powerful faction resistant to his presence in the White House.
As he took the job, Breitbart – the alt-right website run until last year by Stephen Bannon, now a top Trump top aide – ran a story decrying Dubke’s hiring, saying he was an acolyte of Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s top political aide.
“President Trump is very suspicious of Rove and his acolytes and has made that point clear for years now,” Breitbart reported.
Against that backdrop, Dubke went to work for a president who operates very differently than his predecessors.
Most modern presidents had communications shops that planned every appearance weeks in advance and that vetted every statement. Upward of two dozen White House staffers – including lawyers and policy aides as well as communications and social media staffers – saw each of former President Barack Obama’s tweets before they were sent out, said Elizabeth Allen, a Williamsville native who served as Obama’s deputy communications director.
In contrast, Trump often sets his own communications strategy through early morning tweets that come as a surprise to his staff.
The GOP consultant who knows Dubke said Trump’s tweets undermine the messages his communications staff plans.
Sometimes, too, Trump tramples on his staff’s message in other ways. For example, after Trump aides said he fired FBI Director James Comey because of how he handled the agency’s Hillary Clinton investigation, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt days later that the agency’s investigation into the Trump administration’s Russia ties was in his mind when he fired Comey.
Several GOP sources said the Comey firing played a role in Dubke’s departure. Trump gave Dubke and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer only an hour’s notice of the firing, so they had no time to plan an announcement and line up surrogates to defend the firing on the network news. Yet GOP sources noted that Trump blamed his communications staff for the resulting bad publicity.
Another GOP consultant said it was clear Dubke had been frustrated in the job.
And that’s a shame, said a third GOP operative, who added that Dubke didn't need the job but took it because of his commitment to the nation.
Dubke called returning to the private sector the right move personally.
There, Dubke is unlikely to have to work the 18-hour days and weekend shifts that are common for top White House staffers no matter who is president. And Dubke, a Buffalo Bills fan with season tickets, said a lighter workload would have one important ancillary benefit.
“This way I’ll be able to make the home opener,” he noted.