Running a presidential campaign is no small feat, especially during a global pandemic. Tim Murtaugh, who was communications director for President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share his experiences on the hustings with Trump.
Murtaugh also discusses his new position as a Heritage Foundation visiting fellow and contributor to The Daily Signal.
Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about an 8-year-old girl who has launched an initiative to help homeless children.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
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Rob Bluey: We are joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today by Tim Murtaugh. He’s a new visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation and contributor to The Daily Signal. Tim, welcome to the show.
Tim Murtaugh: Happy to be with you, Rob. Thank you for the opportunity.
Bluey: Absolutely. We are so excited to have you as a new member of the team.
You are just coming off a position where you served as director of communications for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. And I’m sure that our audience wants to hear all about what it was like to work so closely with President Trump.
To begin, today, can you share any favorite stories from your time serving on the campaign?
Murtaugh: Well, I mean, I’m not sure I can capture really what it was like, just here in the space of this brief conversation. But it was really a wild ride. It’s the best job that I’ve ever had, and I’m very grateful to the president for letting me serve in such a capacity. And it was an amazing experience.
You never think, early on in your career, that you’ll be flying on Air Force One, which we did sometimes, we tried to keep costs down because the campaign has to pay for that. Meeting in the Oval Office with the president is an incredible thing.
And when you get done doing a TV head, if I were on Fox News or CNN or something, and the phone rings, and it’s got four zeros on the caller ID, you know that’s the White House switchboard calling. And when the lady comes on and says, “Do you have a moment to speak to the president?” it’s kind of a jarring experience.
So, of course, you say, “Yeah, I’ve got time.” And then she says, “Please hold.” And then she comes back and says, “Mr. Murtaugh, the president.” And he’s on there. And he had just watched you on TV and he wants to give you feedback and tell you, “You’re doing a good job. But when you said X, Y, and Z, maybe you could say it a different way.”
So, he was a guy who was paying attention and really cared very much about what the messaging was.
But I think the starkest memory that I have from the campaign was on December 18th, 2019. It was the day that the House impeached him for the first time. And I was backstage as they were deciding when the president was going to go out on stage.
We were in Battle Creek, Michigan, for a rally. And the president was due onstage at about exactly the time that the House was going to be voting. And so there was a determination of, does he go out before the vote? Does he wait for the vote?
We waited for a while and then it was clear that we didn’t know when the House was going to vote. So he just went out on stage and started talking.
And I stood backstage, and I was standing next to the Vice President Mike Pence as we watched, on the monitor, the House proceedings, as they were voting on impeachment, while the president was on the other side of the curtain speaking to, I don’t know what, 11,000, 12,000 people out in the arena.
Then we had to figure out a way to get word to him about what the result of the vote was. So we drew up a big sign with the vote totals on it. And then a number three down below, which indicated that three Democrats had crossed over and voted with the Republicans against impeachment.
We gave it to Kayleigh McEnany, who was our campaign press secretary at the time, before she went to the White House, and sent her out into the buffer area in front of the stage with this really big sign.
And he looked down and she was wearing a bright red dress, so he could pick her out. And he went down and he looked down and saw her there, and that’s how he learned what the vote totals were. And he told the crowd right there at that very moment.
I mean, it was really surreal to be there and part of that piece of American history. And of course we know that the Senate went on to acquit him. And we thought that would be the most unusual thing that happened during the campaign. I guess we were wrong about that.
Bluey: Obviously, shortly after that, the campaign, in many respects, was thrown a curve ball with the coronavirus.
President Trump had made a name for himself, and the campaign was so successful in bringing together large crowds. What was it like for you to travel, particularly when you were able to get back on the road later in the campaign, to see so much of America and interact with the American people?
Murtaugh: It’s pretty amazing. The president really did bring together different parts of America who had never really gotten together before in one coalition.
I think a lot of people were voting for him in 2016, but also in 2020, who had never voted for a Republican before, perhaps in their lives. And so you go to these rallies, and I think the media had a different perspective or a preconceived notion of what the rallies were like.
I was at a rally one time, I was sitting next to, I won’t name the person, but a well-known face from one of the major cable networks, sitting at the rally. And she had never been to one before.
I was sitting right next to her, and she leaned over to me and said, “Is it always like this?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “I mean, it’s positively joyous here. There are families, there are parents with children. Everyone is just having the time of their lives.” And I said, “Yes, it is always like this. Yes.”
And she said, “This is just not what I expected.” And I said, “Maybe you should stop watching your own network once in a while. But yeah, this is what it’s like at a Trump rally.”
And it was, it was people from all walks of life. The media wants to paint it a certain way, but we had a lot of Hispanics, and a lot of African Americans, and a lot of Asian people, and people who were from working families, union members; very, very strong supporters of the president. And then it was really great to see.
When we got back out on the road, as we were able to get back to in-person events, it was really just an explosion of people wanting to get back to normal, of course, but also wanting to be out there and show their support for the president.
It was really a great feeling. And that’s why we really did feel like, up to Election Day, and even beyond, we were very confident of victory.
Bluey: Tim, I want to get into a few follow-up questions based on what you just said.
Your campaign was able to win the votes of more than 74 million Americans who came out to support President Trump. That’s 12 million more than his previous campaign in 2016. What do we know about these new Trump voters?
As you were on the campaign trail, what can you tell us about the people who were attracted to President Trump’s campaign, who might not traditionally have been supporting Republican candidates for office?
Murtaugh: Well, we know that they love this country and they want to put America first, both here at home, but also on the world stage.
When you talk about America first, it doesn’t necessarily mean being belligerent with regard to your interactions with other countries, but it means putting America’s interests first when you’re talking about those things.
And we know that these folks, the 74 million who voted President Trump, we know that they approve of his policies and his successes. The world’s best economy before the pandemic hit, for one. And I think it’s important to remember that this was a global pandemic that affected every nation on Earth.
We know that they love conservative judges that the president appointed, three justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. We know that they appreciate that President Trump was sticking up for them.
I think the overriding sentiment for a lot of these folks is that they believe that Washington had forgotten all about them for an awfully long time. And they were tired of being condescended to by the elites in Washington. And here was a guy, Donald J. Trump, who gave voice to their frustrations with the Washington swamp.
I think, in that way, he was really able to grow the party in a much broader Republican coalition than we have ever seen before. I mean, the vote total, I think, shows that. And I know that Democrats have been very nervous about the inroads that he made in the black community and the Latino community, and certainly with union members.
Bluey: Let’s talk about that for a moment because we certainly saw a significant increase in support from minority communities. What do you think some of the important factors were that conservatives should take into account to broaden our reach going forward, based on the Trump campaign?
Murtaugh: I think, first, it helped very much, in 2020, that the president had a record of nearly four years in office to run on and point to. It was a very strong economy. It was the lowest unemployment rate in the black community and Latino community in history, again, pre-pandemic.
Record funding for historically black colleges and universities, more money ever devoted than by any of his predecessors. And also criminal justice reform.
Latinos were very strong for the president in our polling, interestingly enough. They felt that his strong stance on China was a big reason why they supported him, because they rightly felt that he was defending their jobs and their livelihoods.
I think it might be counterintuitive for some people, but his positions on immigration actually resonated very well in the Latino community.
Because, think of it this way, if you ask someone in this country who is Latino, and maybe either they themselves or a member of their families, in prior generations, had come to this country by the legal means and done things the right way, if you ask those folks, “Hey, do you think that everybody else who comes here should follow the rules, or do you think they ought to be able to jump the line and take shortcuts?” they’ll say, “Darn right, they should follow the rules. My family and I had to follow the rules and they should too.”
So I think that leftists make a big mistake when they think that they can just shout the word “immigration” and think that they’ve won the argument. People are people, and they care about what affects them directly. And I firmly believe that conservative policies are best for everybody.
So you have to promote those policies and point to the record of them working in those communities. And I think we have to make a better case of how liberal policies have failed so many people in this country.
Look at the inner cities, most of which have been dominated by liberals for decades, or even as much as a century. Point it out and say, “Why do you keep voting for this?”
You also have to stay engaged in those communities, it can’t just happen in the space of a few months during campaign season. It has to be full-time.
And much like President Trump did with union workers, we have to be willing to make the arguments and get people to consider voting conservative ideals because I think a lot of people are conservative, and if they stopped and thought about it, they would agree and they would be supporting conservative policies.
Bluey: You are so right, Tim, that the president had a strong record to run on. That is so true. And I feel a lot of people saw the positive benefits in their own life, in so many different ways.
Given the president’s communication style, which I think was unique in many respects and then a break from so many past leaders of our country—
Murtaugh: Yes. You could say that. Yeah.
Bluey: … how important was it to have that direct line of communication to the American people through social media? Which, of course, we know the social media companies, which are run by leftists and left-leaning leaders, probably didn’t like. But the president was just masterful at it.
How did you deploy that effectively to make sure that you were reaching these people who might not consider themselves traditional conservatives?
Murtaugh: Well, I mean, I think maybe you’re giving the campaign a little too much credit. We didn’t exactly deploy Donald Trump. He did that on his own. That Twitter account that he no longer has, of course, was something that he ran. He was the master of it.
He could reach tens of millions of people in an instant. And he was able to really change the tide of conversations and change actions by Congress. He would send the media scurrying at a moment’s notice. And I think it’s great.
The idea that you would have to go through the filter of the national news media to be able to speak to the American people is wrong. And I think the media was, I think, jealous of the fact that he could go around them and speak right to the American people. I think the social media companies didn’t like it at all. But he was able to do that. Absolutely.
We had polling consistently that showed that the president’s policies and the way he approached the problems of this country really went off the charts when people heard directly from him and not through the filter of the national news media.
When he spoke in his State of the Union addresses, or in his rally speeches, in doing focus groups and doing real-time polling, and polling people after the fact, when they heard straight from him, the numbers were astronomical as compared to people who got their news from, say, CNN or “NBC Nightly News,” something like that.
So direct communication, whether it’s through televised speeches or through social media, was really key. And there has been no one, ever, who communicated like that, like Donald J. Trump has.
Bluey: That is so true. And I think it’s why so many conservatives, including us at The Heritage Foundation, created organizations like The Daily Signal; making sure that we had our own platforms, our own media outlets, that could get that message out and really tell the truth.
I mean, we’ve had to deal with our fair share of media bias for decades now. And you saw it up close in your role as director of communications.
Just last week, CNN attacked [former] Vice President Mike Pence for a column that he wrote for us, The Daily Signal, on election integrity. I’m just wondering, what advice do you have for conservatives or Republicans in office as they’re dealing with a hostile press?
Murtaugh: You can’t be afraid of it. You know that they’re there. And you know that they’re not going to give you a fair shake, that’s for sure. But our philosophy, on the Trump campaign, was to go into the lion’s den.
The Biden campaign didn’t really do that. They stayed mostly away from conservative media, figuring that the rest of the mainstream media would do their work for them. And I think they were largely correct in that, the media did do that. But we went into the pro-Biden media all the time, at least when they would take us, CNN, and MSNBC, and the like.
Look, think of it this way, if I went on CNN—which I did a number of times during the campaign—and I got beat up for 12 minutes, but I was actually able to get across some of our points for 30 or 60 seconds, it’s probably the only 30 or 60 seconds of our viewpoint that CNN viewers were going to hear all day.
And that’s not a lot, 30 to 60 seconds, but it’s better than zero. So, I say, take the fight to them, make the case, get in their stories.
One thing that sticks out in my mind is I was on Chris Cuomo’s show one night, very close to the election, just a week or so before the election. And I knew he was going to press me about the president’s approach to COVID.
I knew he was going to ask me some self-righteous questions about how the president didn’t do enough, and he didn’t take it serious, and all that stuff.
I think everyone can remember back when he was having his brother, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, on the show, they used to make fun of each other all the time.
And Chris Cuomo had this giant Q-tip that he held up and made fun of his brother and [said], “Hey, you’d need a Q-tip this big because your nose is so large.” And they were yucking it up while the pandemic was in full swing, especially in New York City.
So, when Chris Cuomo had me on and was grilling me about the president not taking [COVID-19] seriously, I was ready. And then I had a printout of the picture of the two of them with the giant Q-tip. And I said, “Now, come on now, Chris. Does this look like a couple of guys who were taking the pandemic seriously?”
I don’t think he was quite expecting that. He said, “Well, you know what? Yeah, sure, I had them on. And you know what? It was funny.” And so I think that the point was made.
You just have to be ready, you be creative, and know that they’re not going to be on your side. But don’t be afraid of the debate.
I know Heritage, of course, [is] not afraid of the debate. And you guys have been doing a great job for generations, [that’s] why I’m so thrilled to be associated with you now.
But I think you can have relationships with the media that would be considered adversarial.
I get along very well with most of the reporters and the TV hosts that I dealt with over the last two years. A few exceptions maybe. But, by and large, they are professionals and they will try to let you make your points. You’re not going to fix every bad story and you’re not going to win every argument, but you got to give it a try.
Bluey: That’s great advice, Tim. And we appreciate you going into the lion’s den to do that.
Murtaugh: It was fun. It was fun.
Bluey: Absolutely. President Trump recently spoke at [the Conservative Political Action Conference], and he outlined the different direction that our country is taking under this current Biden administration.
We’re seeing some of those consequences really early on in his administration, not necessarily living up to the promise to govern from the center or as a moderate, as he said he would. Instead, there are some fairly significant policies that take a hard-left direction.
What is the most important thing that conservatives can do to confront this growing threat in America, not only of socialism, but an attempt, I think, to radically change our country?
Murtaugh: I think what we’re seeing here is a display of the truism that elections have consequences. We are going down a radical path. And to some extent, I would tell people that it should not be a surprise.
A lot of these things are things that [President Joe] Biden said he was going to do at one point or another during the campaign. And we argued, and I think it’s bearing out to be true, that he is controlled, to a large degree, by the extreme elements of his party.
So what can we do about this, as we fear that we’re heading down the road toward socialism? I’m not pandering here, Rob, but getting involved with organizations like Heritage is very, very important; bringing attention to what’s going on. Because the mainstream media is not going to do that.
I think that the way to combat this is to get involved, familiarize yourself with what the issues are. Take a look at what the conservative philosophy says about a given topic, whether it’s energy policy, or immigration policy, or tax policy, and see who’s been in charge and what policies have been affecting your direct life.
And let me say this, who lives in the White House is very important, no question to that. And it’s important who controls Congress because they set the big picture, the macro policies for the country. But a lot of things that happen, that affect most people the most, and most directly, happen at the state and local levels.
A school board election may well be more important to you in the long run than a presidential election could ever be, because those are where the policies are made that affect you and your family every single day. A school board, city council—that kind of thing—state legislatures, and governors, of course. And then, I think, near the end of the list is Congress and president.
So elections have consequences. And I think getting involved, making your voice heard, and joining the argument—joining the argument that, no, conservative policies are better. Individual freedoms, economic freedoms, free market approaches, those sorts of things are, in fact, better.
Capitalism has created more wealth among more individuals than any other system ever known to man, and we need to absolutely defend it and its freedoms.
Bluey: Tim, last year we created something called the “Citizen’s Guide to Fight for America.” It was our effort at Heritage, which is ongoing, to do things in a 501(c)(3) nonprofit-compliant way, to give Americans an opportunity.
I just want to give a plug for it because you just had such a great lead into it. It’s heritage.org/citizensguide. And our listeners can check that out and sign up and get involved.
But one follow-up question for you. You spoke earlier in our conversation about so many of President Trump’s accomplishments during the four years in office. What are you most worried about the Biden administration undoing from those successful policies?
Murtaugh: Well, there’s a lot, because President Trump had a great list of accomplishments.
I think, having worked in the Trump administration for two years before the campaign—I was communications director for Secretary Sonny Perdue at [the United States Department of Agriculture]—I know a lot of federal employees from USDA and also in other agencies, not political appointees, but career employees there.
And what I’m hearing now is that the Biden team is coming in and overturning Trump policies, in many cases just because they are Trump policies, just out of hand, changing things back to the Obama ways because they have the Trump label on them.
I think that’s short-sighted and I think that’s reckless, just simply doing things because the previous guy was not to your liking and so you’re just going to change it back to be almost spiteful. I don’t think that’s any way to run a government.
But on the big-picture items, I think the rollbacks that Biden is already attempting to do that are dangerous, I think one on immigration.
We’re already seeing a crisis at the border with record-shattering migrant children showing up at the border. And I think Biden is getting cover from the national news media.
But we heard so much about kids in cages when Donald Trump was president. Well, Joe Biden has reopened those facilities that he so reviled during the campaign and I think the situation is getting worse.
Because when you advertise that you’re not going to deport anyone and you’re going to provide amnesty, you’re going to attract more people. It’s common sense. So no wonder there is a flood at the border.
I think immigration is, one, it’s a public safety issue. It’s an economic issue because it threatens the jobs and creates more competitions for Americans, people who are here legally, who need jobs, particularly coming out of the coronavirus economic downturn.
Taxes is another thing. I think there’s no secret, no doubt, that Joe Biden is going to try to raise taxes substantially on people. And that is an economy-killer, especially, again, coming out of an economic downturn.
Regulation, not a sexy topic, I don’t think. But one of the great unsung accomplishments of the Trump administration was the cutting of red tape, freeing up entrepreneurs to do what they do best and create jobs. I think it’s simplistic to talk about the government and the president creating jobs.
What President Trump did, I think, masterfully, was helped the government create the conditions under which private-sector entrepreneurs and private-sector employers can create jobs themselves.
That’s what government’s role is, is to clear a way for the private sector to be able to flourish. And that’s what he did. And I fear that Biden is just going to heap those regulations right back on again and all that good will be undone.
And then I think a final area that is very important is energy. We already see that President Biden has killed the Keystone XL pipeline deal, and that’s going to cost 11,000 jobs right away; 1,000 people getting laid off right now and 10,000 jobs that will never be created.
It’s also going to get us back in, and has gotten us back into, the Paris accord, which purposefully hamstrings and kneecaps our own economy in the hopes that other countries will follow suit and do what the accord says they’re supposed to do. But there’s no enforcement provisions, there’s no punishment or consequences for failing to do it.
Even John Kerry, [Biden’s special envoy on climate matters,] admits that if the United States went down to zero emissions tomorrow, it would have basically no impact on world climate because 90% of the emissions come from outside the United States.
So I think that all of the things that President Trump has accomplished in those areas are very important. And I think that Joe Biden is going to immediately set to rolling them all back. And I think it’s very dangerous.
Bluey: Well, Tim, that gives you no shortage of topics to cover in your Daily Signal column. Tell our listeners about what are some of the things that you hope to be writing about for us in your stint as a contributor?
Murtaugh: … One I just finished the last answer with, energy is one. I think that the idea that the Keystone XL pipeline cancellation was a good thing for the environment is wrong. I think he did it just to appease the environmental activists that supported him so strongly during the campaign.
And if you look at it, what he’s done, … that oil is not going to stop coming from Canada just because the pipeline is dead, that particular pipeline, it’s going to be transported by railway and by truck, which historically, and statistically, are far more dangerous than a pipeline is. Historically, that’s just a fact.
So I think the joke is on the environmentalists. They won, basically, a symbolic victory because it’s actually worse for the environment, the way that they’ve got it designed now.
So I’ll be talking about, I think, Biden policies and probably some commentary on our good friends in the news media as well.
Bluey: We’re looking forward to those contributions.
I want to close with a sports question. Both of us are long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Of course, this season is not necessarily going to be resulting in a World Series championship. But how do we get back on track, Tim? And what are your predictions for the coming season?
Murtaugh: Well, yes, long-suffering is right. My grandfather was the manager of the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh, for a long time in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. So I have early memories of the Pirates being very good. And the Barry Bonds years were now a very long time ago, it was well after my grandpa. And the Andrew McCutchen years are now fading into distant memory.
So, I mean, I would answer your question by saying that it’s a good thing that Major League Baseball doesn’t have relegation, like soccer, where you get kicked out of the top league if you’re not good enough.
I was joking with someone the other day, at this time of year, we’re right around the corner from Major League Baseball, plus the Pirates.
I can’t see much better than a last-place finish, I’m sorry to say. And I hope that they are able to hold onto some of their young homegrown talent, and maybe pick up a couple of free agents or two over the course of a few years.
But I’m afraid they’re once again back into that familiar rebuilding mode and as we often see with the Pirates who have served as sort of an adjunct farm system for the rest of Major League Baseball.
Bluey: Tim, I have to say, it is such an honor to talk to a Murtaugh. My father grew up in the Pittsburgh area, attended games when your grandfather was the manager. My dad says he’s the best manager in Pirates history, hands down. No one’s even close. He also was a Pirates player, a second baseman. Right?
Murtaugh: Yes. Played second base. Yep.
Bluey: So definitely, even though we are long-suffering fans, we have a special place in our heart for those Pittsburgh Pirates.
Tim Murtaugh, it’s great to have you on board as a contributor to The Daily Signal and visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Murtaugh: You bet, Rob, thank you very much.
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