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High intensity, high blood pressure: Hamburg's Dubke reflects on the Trump White House

Mike Dubke spent less than four months as President Trump’s communications director, but his quick exit did come with a benefit: He didn’t have to give away his Buffalo Bills tickets.

“I think I said to somebody on my way out the door, ‘Well at least I’ll make the Bills’ season next year,’ ” Dubke, who grew up in Hamburg, told The Buffalo News in a recent telephone interview.

The 48-year-old political communications operative is a respected figure in GOP circles, but save for his brief stint as a top aide to President Trump, has maintained a low public profile. Dubke rarely gives interviews, but agreed to speak to The News for a story on fellow Western New Yorker-turned-D.C. insider Julie Pace, who is the Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press.

“There’s a soft spot in my heart for anything to do with Western New York,” said Dubke, who expanded beyond Pace in the 35-minute conversation and reflected on his formative years in two Hamburgs, the intensity of the Trump White House, and what he feels is a permanently changed news cycle.

A dual Hamburg childhood

Dubke grew up in the Village of Hamburg, where his mother was a math teacher at the local junior high. As part of a teacher-exchange program in the mid-'80s, his mom got a two-year assignment to teach in Germany, which meant Dubke moved to the more-famous Hamburg for his sophomore and junior year of high school. After playing football as a freshman in the States, he switched to soccer and basketball in Europe, and found the more-open European style of grading schoolwork (on a 1 to 7 scale) to translate nicely when he got back home for his senior year.

Mike Dubke, shown here outside Air Force One, said he never sought out the White House communications director job. But, he said, " I would do it again in a heartbeat."

“No one in the States knew how to translate (it),” Dubke said, “so I got to help translate what my grades meant when I came back to the States. That catapulted me up into the top 20 students at Hamburg Central.”

Convenient, right? Dubke laughs when he thinks back on being a 17-year-old kid telling his school administrators what his grades were, but his success since then has hardly been exaggerated. Dubke went on to Hamilton College, graduated in 1992, and worked on George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign. He moved upward from there, working in communications for political candidates, corporations and nonprofits and co-founding Black Rock Group. The Alexandria, Va.-based strategic communications firm, which is named after the Black Rock section of Buffalo, works with clients in the tech, energy, transportation and communications industries, among others.

“I think clients appreciate his advice because before giving it, he listens, does his research and is happy to entertain others' advice as well,” said Andrea Bozek, a Buffalo- and D.C.-based Republican communications operative and senior vice president with Mercury LLC, a public strategy firm. “That combination is, unfortunately, rare in D.C. Also, he understands staff shouldn’t be the story in a race. Your job should be getting positive press for your client/candidate.”

Early in the Trump administration, one of Dubke’s partners in Black Rock Group recommended him to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who was recruiting a communications director. In February 2017, Spicer brought Dubke to the Oval Office to meet the president and talk about the job.

Trump, coincidentally, had decided to hold a press conference that afternoon. As the Washingtonian magazine reported, Dubke’s interview turned quickly into him observing an impromptu press conference preparation session. During the press conference that afternoon, Dubke stood in the East Room as Trump sparred with reporters for more than an hour. That night, Spicer called Dubke and offered him the job. In his memoir “The Briefing,” Spicer called Dubke “a consummate professional, not a showboat,” and “exactly what we needed.”

Dubke calculated his family’s situation in deciding what to do. He and his wife Shannon have two sons: Harry was in college; Sam was a high school senior. With older kids, he figured he could take on the job without disrupting his family’s life.

“I got the job through happenstance,” Dubke told The News. “It wasn’t anything I was looking to do; it wasn’t even on my career wish or anything like that. I probably didn’t give it the full amount of thought I should have going in, but I wouldn’t change anything for the world. It was an honor to be able to serve your country. I know those all sound like cliches, but when you’re in the middle of it, you really do feel it.”

Following his stint as White House communications director, Mike Dubke was a fellow at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, where he talked about the 24-hour news cycle becoming the "24-minute news cycle." (Photo courtesy of Georgetown University's McCourt School)

West Wing intensity

But finding success in the White House was challenging. Dubke’s office was in the press area of the West Wing, which reporters could access by walking through a doorway to the side of the briefing room podium. A journalist with a question, complaint or concern had several potential stops. The first is an area called Lower Press, located directly behind the briefing room stage, where junior staffers sit. A few steps away is Upper Press, where senior communications officials reside. During Dubke’s tenure, the three offices in Upper Press belonged to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was then Spicer’s deputy, and to Spicer and Dubke. Sanders' and Spicer’s jobs were to handle the daily news; Dubke’s was to focus on long-term messaging.

But Dubke found that by locating himself in Upper Press, with an office directly adjacent to the West Wing lobby, his work was regularly interrupted.

“It was terrible,” Dubke said of the workflow. “My job was different than Sarah and Sean’s, which was to talk to the press. My job was really long-term messaging, and strategically, I probably made a mistake by being up there, but it was exciting. It was fun. But it was very hard to get work done because you were constantly getting inundated by reporters asking news of the day, which I helped with, but it wasn’t really my day job.”

Those day-to-day challenges were surrounded by some larger, more daunting issues. The Trump White House, especially in those early days, was well known for having separate camps of aides, some with closer ties to the president than others. Dubke hadn’t worked on the Trump campaign, nor had he come from the Republican National Committee. His presence wasn’t bolstered by a network of loyal allies. That could be an advantage: In theory, Dubke could service Trump’s policy vision with no preconceived agenda. But in reality, it also made it more difficult for him to navigate the politics of the White House.

The Washingtonian story offered an example: In April 2017, Dubke convened 30-some White House staffers in a brainstorming meeting to help craft a communications strategy. Days later, details of the meeting were published in Politico, with anonymous sources criticizing Dubke’s leadership.

The White House was leaking. The workflow was choppy. The stress was building — Dubke went on medication for high blood pressure during his time on the job. The pace was exhausting, and fueled by Trump’s propensity to make news through tweets and soundbites.

“The 24-hour news cycle,” Dubke said, “is now the 24-minute news cycle.”

To stay on the job, Dubke would have had to sell off his business interests to comply with government ethics regulations. He decided not to do it, and instead walked into the Oval Office in mid-May to give Trump his resignation. Dubke told the Washingtonian that he and Trump had a frank talk about his “level of frustration I had that things weren’t progressing as quickly as I thought that they could.”

After Dubke left, he taught for a semester as a fellow at Georgetown University and returned to his work at Black Rock Group. But he’s kept in touch with his former White House team. Spicer left later in 2017 and Sanders became the press secretary.

“I still maintain my friendships with Sarah and the rest of the team that worked for me that’s still there at the White House,” Dubke said. “I talk to them probably weekly, and help as best I can from the outside. In my view, at least, the best thing they could have is somebody to run ideas off of who they trust and who’s not going to be going to the press every five minutes. Everybody needs someone they can talk to and work things through with. Hopefully I can still provide that for them, because I believe that it’s a hard job and they’re doing the best they can, and when you’re in that kind of klieg-light atmosphere, there’s not a lot of allies that you have. So I hope I’m helping them and filling that role for them after I’ve left.”

A churn of successors have filled Dubke’s former position: Anthony Scaramucci held the job for 10 days, followed by Hope Hicks (seven months) and Bill Shine (eight months). Dubke indicates no regrets about his stint in the job. “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he said.

But if he actually does it again one day, he fully grasps the intensity.

“It is a tough job, and a bit grueling, and I have a high level of respect for people who are doing it over long periods of time, both on the White House official staff side, and also the reporters,” Dubke said. “I mean, it is a grueling exercise for these folks. But it was great. I miss it slightly, but I’m glad I’m not there right now.”

Glad for many reasons, perhaps even this one: Dubke’s wife Shannon bought him Bills season tickets for their wedding in 1994, and he’s had them since. Before wrapping up with call with the News, Dubke made sure to point out an achievement that makes him proud.

“We just hit our 25-year mark,” said Dubke, who travels home for three or four games each year and reconnects with high school friends. Both of his sons are Buffalo boosters, and have come to Orchard Park for games. “I raised two children in Washington, D.C., over 17 years of a playoff drought to be Bills fans,” Dubke said.

Dubke’s passion for Buffalo is well-known in D.C. It was pointed out in stories announcing his hiring at the White House, and he kept an old-school red Bills helmet in his office. “It was fun to wear to a staff meeting on the day the Patriots were coming in for their Super Bowl (White House) trip,” Dubke told the News in an email after the phone interview, adding, “God, I hate the Patriots.”

Dubke didn't mention this, but it was likely a fun jab at Spicer, a well-known Patriots fan. And whenever someone asks Dubke about the Bills’ fortunes, he knows how to apply some light political spin.

“Every year somebody asks me, ‘So how are the Bills going to do?’” he said. “And I go, ‘They’re going to the Super Bowl this year.’ I mean, you’ve got to say that every year.”

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