There are two camps of crisis management — and thus far, Anthony Weiner seems to be keeping his feet firmly planted outside both of them.
College public relations textbooks urge full transparency, getting everything out immediately and fully, while another school — embodied by a host of scandal-scarred pols over the years — urges secrecy, limited communications and never, ever voluntarily giving up information to the authorities.
Weiner has spent the past five days ricocheting between those two poles and wound up where pretty much no one would advise: a media blitz that raised more questions than it answered and failed to establish with “certitude” whether a photograph that appeared on Weiner’s Twitter feed was of his own crotch.
Part of Weiner’s mystifying performance, allies say, comes from the fact that he seems to be his own closest adviser. “It’s never a good idea to be your own lawyer,” said a pained Weiner friend.
Weiner’s allies say the press-savvy former spokesman for New York Sen. Chuck Schumer has been masterminding his own defense, though he’s in email and telephone touch with a wide circle of former aides and a smaller political team that shaped his 2005 bid for mayor of New York and had been expected to advise on a 2013 campaign, including consultants Jim Margolis and Tom Freedman and pollster Joel Benenson.
That go-it-alone approach has satisfied no one and left a general feeling of bewilderment among those watching Weiner try to argue that he was the victim of an Internet prank.
“If in fact it was just a hacking, then the performance is mystifying,” said Eric Dezenhall, who heads a Washington crisis management firm.
Lanny Davis, a veteran of Clinton White House scandals who often advises clients to dump their bad news fast and in full, said Weiner should embrace that strategy. Not to do that is “simply to compound the crisis — to give it legs, to give it more energy,” he said.
Weiner’s predicament has already dealt a blow to his political prospects. Long seen as a glib, punchy and perhaps slightly adolescent spinoff of the heavyweight Schumer, he had acquired a level of public seriousness as a leading spokesman for the left. And his marriage last summer to glamorous, trusted Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had the feel of the merger of the two great houses of Clinton and Schumer.
His apparent acknowledgement, like an embarrassed high schooler, that there may be pictures of his genitals floating around the social media has shredded that new grownup image.
“This just underscores for [New York’s political class] that Anthony would never be a good mayor,” said a senior aide to a member of New York’s congressional delegation.
Weiner’s PR strategy seemed ill-considered from the start. The tweet linking a lewd photo appeared Friday night, and Saturday morning Weiner emailed a flip response to a reporter’s inquiry. Saturday, though, he and his aides realized that they had a serious problem and sought to confine the story to the conservative fringes of the Internet, dismissing it as a “hack” and communicating in curt statements.
Weiner issued more limited statements during the holiday weekend and, an adviser said, he and his aides believed he could move past it at a Tuesday news conference.
What the congressman didn’t realize, two people close to him said, was that reporters — and their audiences — who hadn’t spent the weekend covering the story and reckoning with his limited statements wouldn’t be satisfied by his evasions. The news conference turned into a confrontation: Weiner called a CNN producer a “jackass” and left the impression he had something to hide.
Soon after, he reversed course. If stonewalling wouldn’t work, he would be the ubiquitous, media-embracing Weiner. He blitzed the cable networks, from Fox to NY1News, but he arrived without clear answers and did nothing to set the story to rest.
Of course, the simplest explanation of the scenario is that he had, in fact, tried to send a picture of his genitals to a 21-year-old Washington state college student. Weiner has denied that in public and in private. Two people who spoke to him privately said he had suggested that, as one said, “he took or sent a photo or photos like this at some point — but in this case actually was hacked/set up, perhaps with a posting of one of his own photos or something very similar.”
“If that is the reality, there is no magic, good way to handle it,” Dezenhall said. “You have what lawyers call a ‘bad fact.’”
Friends said Weiner may also be personally torn about how to proceed. Though he’s a very public figure, he’s also a very private person and, despite a reputation as a ladies’ man, rarely shared details of his personal life with staff or reporters before his wedding last summer. His wife, meanwhile, is intensely private and a veteran keeper of Clinton secrets, an unquestionably loyal aide who has been in the room during countless confidential meetings.
The one character in the Weiner drama who has followed the public relations textbook to the letter is Gennette Cordova, the student to whom the text message was directed. She issued a detailed statement on Sunday that outlined what she knew and didn’t know and debunked a series of specific claims.
Since then, she has limited her comments to occasional, specific Twitter messages.
“I’ve denied every single interview request I’ve gotten, … And that includes the ‘Today’ show! And I freaking love Matt Lauer :(,” she wrote.
Asked by POLITICO, via Twitter, about the source of her apparent sang-froid, in sharp contrast to the congressman’s flailing, Cordova replied: “I think if I had something to hide I might be more freaked out. This really is a nightmare, though.”
Jon Allen and Byron Tau contributed to this report.