When President Barack Obama broke into a critique of Donald Trump 's campaign style last week, he was deviating from the White House strategy: Don't discuss the presumptive GOP nominee, much less say his name.
Since an episode in December, top White House officials have shied away from discussing Trump’s policy proposals. Sure, the president and his top aides, most notably Press Secretary Josh Earnest , often field questions about him.
But what almost never follows is a substantive dissection of Trump’s many campaign-trail pronouncements and promises . We don't hear the kind of jabs officials so often direct at their political opponents. Earnest has acknowledged the Trump avoidance strategy.
“Over the course of the last nine months or so, I've been asked frequently about presidential candidates in both parties, and I think I've been pretty candid about the fact that there's some opportunities that I've taken to weigh in in that debate, but mostly, I've tried to stay out of it,” he said during an April 27 briefing at the White House.
But Earnest admitted that as the general election campaign ramps up, questions about Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee will be inevitable. And he knows that means he soon faces “strategic decisions about how to most effectively make the case for the president.”
John Feehery , a Republican political strategist, said any “direct engagement” by Obama and his top aides “will only help Trump.”
“The more he became the foil for President Obama, the better off he was with primary voters,” Feehery said of Trump. “The more [Obama] gets in a mud-wrestling match with Trump, the worse it is for his dignity and that of the presidency.”
[Related: Why Trump Could Do Lasting Damage to the GOP] Though political operatives believe Obama and the White House will have to go harder at Trump over the next few months, Vanderbilt University political science professor Marc Hetherington believes the administration should stay above the fray as much as possible.
“I suspect there will be plenty of critiques of Mr. Trump that will come from non-Democratic sources,” Hetherington said. “And those will have a bigger impact if they are viewed as nonpartisan.”
The White House appeared to adopt the avoidance strategy after a Dec. 8 briefing room hullabaloo set off by Earnest’s shot at Trump’s famous blonde mane.
"The Trump campaign for months now has had a 'dustbin of history'-like quality to it," Earnest told reporters during an otherwise-routine Tuesday press briefing . "From the vacuous sloganeering to the outright lies to even the fake hair , the whole carnival-barker routine that we've seen for some time now.”
The White House press corps pounced. The ensuing back-and-forth turned into a public relations headache for Earnest and his boss, with reporters asking why Obama’s chief spokesman had resorted to the kind of personal shot it had criticized the Manhattan businessman for using in his presidential bid.
Ever since, Earnest and the president have barely spoken Trump’s name.
On May 6, Obama came the closest he has to engaging the man who wants to replace him in the Oval Office.
In response to a reporter’s question about Trump essentially locking up the GOP nomination , the president said “there’s going to be plenty of time to talk about his positions on various issues.” He urged reporters and journalists to examine Trump’s “long record” and take his many statements “seriously.”
[Related: Back in D.C., Cruz Won't Extinguish Presidential Hopes] He added, “I just want to emphasize the degree to which we are in serious times and this is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show . This is a contest for the presidency of the United States.”
But the president quickly got back on message, saying “every candidate , every nominee needs to be subject to exacting standards and genuine scrutiny.”
Obama was previously asked about Trump in a February news conference in Rancho Mirage, California . He acknowledged other world leaders have privately expressed concerns about Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric — but he added: “This is not just Mr. Trump. Look at the statements that are being made by the other [GOP] candidates.”
“He may express strong, anti-immigration sentiment,” Obama said, “but you've heard that from the other candidates, as well.”
Those comments align closely with the strategy used by Earnest during his daily briefings.
The day after Earnest’s “fake hair” comment, he fielded a question about whether Obama’s remarks about the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery, were directed at Trump. Earnest replied that the president’s message was in “quite stark contrast to the language, message and values that is being promulgated, not by Mr. Trump, but by a variety of Republican candidates in the presidential field.”
Jim Manley , a Democratic strategist and former top aide to the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada , said “it makes sense to identify the Republican Party, and not just Trump,” with what Democrats see as “reckless policies.”
[Related: Trump Not the First to Play Politics With National Debt] “Democrats are anxious to tie the GOP as closely as it can to Trump, so it makes sense to tie in others,” Manley added. “And by not naming him, the president and the press secretary don’t want to dignify him one bit.”
“When the president engages Trump, what happens is conservatives rise to Trump’s defense,” Feehery said. “And that could be problematic for the administration because he has been having a hard time with true conservatives.”