Written by Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman
At the beginning of the government shutdown, Bill Shine was about as far away from the capital as President Donald Trump’s most senior communications official could get. While the president was complaining about sitting alone in the White House trying to force Democrats to accept a wall on the Mexican border, Shine was on a Hawaiian vacation.
As the shutdown presented Trump with an ever-expanding political challenge, Shine, who joined the White House staff with the expectation he would deliver on his promise to satisfy Trump’s hunger for positive news coverage, stayed on vacation, keeping in contact with colleagues by phone.
Eventually, Shine came home early to help manage the administration’s response. But any expectation he would be by the president’s side crafting a cohesive message would be a miscalculation of the role he has actually come to play as Trump’s latest communications director, according to interviews with over a dozen former and current administration officials.
An alumnus of Fox News, where he was known as a protector of the network’s chairman, Roger Ailes, Shine has confined his White House role mainly to stagecraft, people who have worked with him say, and Trump, who chafes against being managed, has openly expressed skepticism about what he has done.
Once he was back in Washington, Shine was among the aides pushing Trump to deliver Tuesday’s prime-time Oval Office speech and make a visit to the border Thursday. And it was Shine who was among the unnamed targets of the president when Trump criticized those plans at a lunch with broadcasters before his speech.
The border visit was “not going to change a damn thing,” Trump said, belittling the plan as a photo op urged on him by “these people behind you,” he said, pointing to Shine and a cluster of other communications aides.
The criticism was nothing surprising given Trump’s habit of quickly turning on his staff, and his recent habit of asking people whether Shine has been “good” for him since arriving last summer had a familiar ring.
For Shine, there was one obvious challenge from the beginning.
“This president’s never going to be happy with his coverage because he’s in a permanent war with the media,” Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an occasional Trump adviser who has been a contributor on Fox News, said in an interview. “Shine in that sense is in a challenging environment. His primary client is somebody who would like a result that requires change but is not willing to change.”
The White House declined to provide comment for this article from a spokesperson, from Shine or from Trump, after multiple requests. But Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, praised Trump’s instinct for a good story in a text message.
“Donald Trump is an irrepressibly press-savvy, communications-centric president,” Conway said. Of Shine, she added that he “has a gut for what sells and an eye for what compels.”
A longtime associate of Ailes, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Trump thought he was “getting Roger,” who built Fox with a keen eye for aggressive political strategy, in his hire. But Shine, according to his critics, has shown little understanding of the conservative media beyond the cable news ecosystem and his former network — the one place where the president does not need much assistance, and where Shine has few remaining admirers.
Shine has survived mainly by fulfilling the president’s desire to be in charge of his own messaging.
“He understands really strong personalities,” Gingrich said, noting Shine’s past at Fox. “He understands that his job is to operate within the framework of that personality, not to try to change that.”
Shine, for his part, has told several colleagues he is used “to working for crazy bosses,” a reference to his time at Fox that made its way back to the network, where officials were displeased.
At 55, Shine is older than many other aides in the West Wing. He is widely described as genial and good humored by his colleagues, several of whom refer to him as an “adult in the room.” He is usually at his desk around 6:45 each morning, a White House official said. Bearded, tall and often bleary-eyed, he works late into the evenings as a rotating cast of reporters filter in and out of his office. He is known as a level presence and, in the words of one senior administration official, is good at “staying in his lane.” Unlike many other White House aides, Shine tends to avoid matters that are not in his immediate purview.
Exactly what that purview is hard to discern. Multiple people close to the White House, for instance, said the communications office issued no guidance on what points they should make on television after Trump’s Oval Office address.
According to one senior administration official, Shine, arriving at the White House, appeared overwhelmed by a fractious West Wing, in part because he was hired by the president after John Kelly, his former chief of staff, was unwilling to reassign Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of strategic communications.
Early on, Trump was impressed with Shine’s ability to help pull him out of an unflattering news cycle after a widely criticized news conference in Helsinki, Finland, with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Days after the meeting, Shine arranged for the president to step out in front of reporters on the South Lawn and hail his administration’s economic accomplishments. Describing the scene, a senior administration official said Trump kept his eyes trained on Shine, who stood casually nearby with a Starbucks cup in hand, while the president addressed the group and momentarily shifted the news cycle.
But two senior administration officials said Shine’s new colleagues, who expected him to come in with a degree of Ailes genius, have not been impressed by what they considered timeworn suggestions, such as the president not tweeting so much.
The shutdown has highlighted the inner workings of a strategy-challenged White House, where one official described Shine as a bridge between the bifurcated communications and press teams. He is one of four assistants to the president — an official distinction — who focus on communications. They often do not work in concert, according to several White House officials.
But it is not as if there have not been some novel communications tactics.
Last week, riding high from a meeting over the plans for funding his long-promised border wall, the president held a haphazardly arranged press briefing with law enforcement officials without taking any questions. At a Cabinet meeting, he conspicuously displayed a “Game of Thrones”-inspired sanctions poster. And then there were his taped Rose Garden videos, or the tweet with the video of him singing “Green Acres” at he 2005 Emmys.
Shine had nothing to do with any of that, according to an administration official.
To his friends and allies, Trump wistfully brings up Hope Hicks, his most successful communications director, who departed nearly a year ago. Hicks had the president’s trust in a way that only a few remaining aides do, and she was generally seen as among the small number of people who could suggest to Trump that he hold back from indulging in some of his public relations whims.
Since arriving, Shine has chosen to become useful to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the president’s son-in-law and eldest daughter. At one point, Shine tried to help craft a network special for a planned trip by Ivanka Trump to Africa, which has been postponed amid the government shutdown.
So far, Shine has not satisfied the president’s demand for better news coverage, but the two have bonded over Trump’s tendency to hold grudges toward certain journalists and news outlets. In November, as the president stepped up to the podium in the East Room of the White House for a news conference that devolved into an aggressive exchange with Jim Acosta, a CNN reporter, Shine turned to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
“This is going to be fun,” Shine said, a remark that was overheard by people nearby.
White House aides said Shine could not have planned that a confrontation between Trump and Acosta would take place, or known that it would turn into a fight that ultimately went to court, and insisted he was referring simply to the president’s feistiness before he went to the podium.
But Shine’s willingness to encourage a confrontation that led to Acosta’s White House access badge being pulled — something that aides for months had kept the president from doing — is in keeping with much of his private advice to the man he now works for.
“After he’s done with all of this,” Gingrich said, “Shine will be able to write a great book. I joke with him that in the long run, there’s a great opportunity here.”