Armed with tweets, Wendy Davis alum Zac Petkanas commands DNC’s Trump War Room

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Good morning Austin:

The worst part of each day for Zac Petkanas is when he wakes up and realize that yes, it’s true, Donald Trump is president of the United States.

“It’s the worst part of my day, the absolute worst part of my day, and then I get over it and then we suit up because there is so much work to do,” Petkanas told me yesterday. “Every day is a new horror.”

Petkanas is director of the Trump War Room for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. During the presidential campaign he was director of rapid response for the Hillary Clinton campaign. I got to know Zac when he was the spokesman for Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign against Greg Abbott in 2014.

Like the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Wendy Davis campaign didn’t end well, losing by 20 points. The margin was larger than expected, but it would have been a stunning upset if she had won. On the other hand, Clinton’s loss was a stunning upset.

But Petkanas is relentless and indefatigable.

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“I started at the DNC Jan. 2  with a two-month contract through the end of February to stand up the Trump War Room until the next Chair of the DNC comes in,” said Petkanas, who is 31. “The new chair will decide whether want to continue the war room or not.”

As a child actor in NYC, Petkanas had a small role on As the World Turns. He now has a somewhat larger role in the great geopolitical soap opera of our lives –  As the World Spins out of Control.

Here is my Q-and-A with Zac.

FR: Twitter is an important part of your arsenal.

ZP: The virtue of Twitter is that it provides a real time way to communicate with voters and with reporters to show hem how you frame the issues as they are happening. And it’s the evolution of how information is transmitted from political operatives. It used to be mail press releases then fax machines then email and now it’s twitter. I have never worked in place with a fax machine. I entered with email.

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I think that the best way of way communication is via email as well as Twitter they have to be used in concert with one another. Twitter are quick thoughts by creating a drumbeat about that sentence, the narrative that you believe should frame the events that are happening. Email are important because they sit in a reporters inbox.

In a lot of way email is done incorrectly these days, I think you need to treat email to be a lot more like Twitter. You’re looking for shorter. Reporters are being inundated every day and they simply do not have time to read large blocks. So I think the smart operatives are the ones who treat email more like Twitter so that a reporter can get a glimpse of the message you’re trying to portray. For example, instead of a huge text block to show that there were protests all over the country against the repeal of Obamacare, just put the actual headlines showing that here are protests everywhere, with links.

 

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FR: What do you think of President Trump’s use of Twitter?

ZP: I think it is fundamentally bad for our country. I think it is dangerous.. We’re talking about a man who through his tweets is able to move markets, is able to anger allies, is able to get countries mobilizing their armed forces. So fundamentally it hurts us and makes us less safe. However, it does provides a window into what the president is thinking and feeling at any given moment.

FR: And it gives you plenty to work with.

ZP: I think that his approval ratings are where they are largely because of self-inflicted wounds through his Twitter feed. He has stepped on his message at every turn through his Twitter feed because he cannot control himself.

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FR: Was his tweeting dangerous to the nation as a candidate for president?

ZP: It was less dangerous when he was a candidate. At that point it just provided fodder for his opponents to show how erratic he was – is. Now that he is commander-in-chief it presents a whole other layer of danger and showcases why he is not fit to be president.

 

FR: Would Trump have been nominated and elected without Twitter?

ZP: He was nominated and elected because of the Russians. His use of Twitter or not did not stop Vladimir Putin from coming in and helping him become president of the United States.

 

FR: In the primary and general?

ZP: Just the general.

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FR: So in the primary was Twitter a net benefit for Trump?

ZP: I’m not sure it was Twitter that was what helped him.

I do believe Twitter was helpful for him among his base. It may have helped him in the primary. I think what ultimately helped him was the inability or unwillingness of his Republican opponents to show any backbone in standing up to him.

FR: Putting aside the effect on the nation, is it fair to say President Trump has a natural flair for Twitter and bite-sized communication.

ZP: I think it’s fairly ineffective in communicating beyond his base who already support him. It could be more effective if he didn’t use it as an instrument of vindictiveness and petty childish taunts.

FR: Was there a Tweet that you think was purest essence of Trump.

ZP: I think the one from today is pretty high up there where he essentially says that any bad news is fake news. I mean if that doesn’t capture Donald Trump, I don’t know what does.

 

FR: Do you like tweeting?

ZP:  I actually don’t.

FR: That’s sad.

DT: It’s totally sad.

Twitter is what everyone has to use to communicate at this point in our political history, but really I’d much rather be writing long essay-like missives and mailing them to people in the hope that they read them and print more high-minded discussions that I think are better suited to our republic, but that’s not the world we live in.

FR: So you ‘re nostalgic for the Federalist Papers.

ZP: Yes the Federalist Papers.

Let’s remember that Donald Trump didn’t’ just use Twitter with himself tweeting. One of he big ways the Russians came in and helped him was to flood Twitter with bots – a lot of them generating from Eastern Europe – to go up and promote pro-Trump information and to attack journalists and others who dared speak out against Donald Trump. So I think the story of Donald Trump and Twitter goes a lot deeper than just his penchant for notable tweets early in the morning.

 

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FR: He does his own tweeting, right?

ZP: During the campaign at least, but less so now , whenever there was a tweet from Donald Trump you would check to see, did it come from an Android or came from an iPhone. If it came from Android, you knew it was from Donald Trump. If it came from an iPhone the theory was, they were usually more sedate and more professional, that it came from one of his staffers, so you could try to get a sense whether it was Donald Trump himself succumbing to his 5-year-old, spoiled brat tendencies, or whether it was a staffer who was moderately more professional.

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I don’t know whether it’s been resolved whether he punches the letter into a device or calls over a staffer.

FR: How long do you think Twitter will last?

ZP: Twitter’s been going strong for quite a while. It’s a pretty unique medium and I think that it accurately captures the current attention span, certainly of the media in America, of we as Americans, but also in the Trump presidency, where there is basically a scandal and an outrage a minute, and I think that if Twitter was on the decline before the Trump presidency I think it got a second life with his election … with the help of the Russians.

FR: What tweeters impress you?

ZP:Dan Pfeiffer really strong. John Favreau very strong. John Weaver,  the Republican strategist. is really strong. Evan McMullin is a really strong tweeter. Jason Kander, Chris Murphy, the Connecticut senator, really strong.

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I think the Clinton twitter team was very strong.

FR: Was it Donna Brazile, the acting DNC chair, who called to ask you to head up the DNC war room?

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ZP: Yes. Donna Brazile recognized the emergency need between Trump becoming president and when there is a new (DNC) chair coming in in early March. We need a war room that holds Donald trump accountable on a whole host of issues from the Cabinet nominations, to his conflicts of interests, to the Russian connection, now the Supreme Court, the executive orders, the Muslim ban, and so she asked me to set up and to run that operation in the interim, and so hopefully that’s something we can pass off to the next chair.

FR: If you don’t say on at the DNC, what do you want to do next?

ZP: I want to go to a beach.

FR: What was your last day off?

ZP: The day before I started this job. New Year’s Day.

This is one of the most intense things I have done in my life and the campaign was pretty intense. This is a different kind of intense because during the campaign it was a war of words – he would say something and we would respond. And the stakes were high but they were not as high as they are right now, because he is not just saying things. He is doing things and he is hurting people and the feeling here is that every second that we are not exposing his agenda and pushing back, more people are getting hurt and that’s something that engenders a lot of passion and lot of drive from people in this building who feel very strongly about what this president is doing.

I think this is unique period that requires all hands on deck, leave everything out on the table, you can worry about self-care later, this first 100 days it’s a unique time when there is no social engagement, no personal thing that you can do that is more important than keeping on him and make sure nothing gets by.

FR: How tough was period after the election?

ZP: I got angry pretty quickly. I did. I was in a very black hole the day after, on Wednesday, and then on Thursday I got mad, I mean really angry at what he was talking about doing to this country and he planned on maintaining his promises to hurt people, the middle class, racial and ethnic minorities, women.

FR: Did you have regrets about things you could have done differently during the campaign.

ZP: At the end of a campaign you always replay in your head what could I have been done differently. I think in this case, which was unique to this campaign, there were unprecedented outside forces that had an impact on this campaign, mainly intervention by a foreign government to sway the election, and that has now led to multiple investigations, including a joint investigation by six law enforcement and intelligence agencies that are looking into whether the Kremlin funneled money to the Trump campaign, and even, in terms of the FBI, asked for wiretaps on members of the Trump team.

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So I mean, when you are assessing the campaign, were there things that could have been done differently? Absolutely, but it is important to contextualize it within the unprecedented outside forces that had an impact on this.

FR: It appears that maybe Trump was caught by surprise by winning.

ZP: They clearly did not think through how they were going to set up a government, and certainly not run it. And I think the gross incompetence of this administration – it’s kind of hard to know which is going to win out, their capacity for hurting Americans, or their incompetence to do it.

 

FR: How long do you think President Trump will be in the White House – two years, four years, eight years?

ZP: I’m going to leave that to others. What our job is is ensuring that the information is out there for people to take action to resist this administration, that there is as much information out there about his connections to Russia, conflicts of interest. debunking their spin on the Muslim ban, exposing their corrupt Cabinet nominees and others, to make sure that information is out there so that people can take that and resist in a way that they believe is good for our republic.

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FR: Anything you like about what Trump has done?

ZP: Anything positive out of this administration is dwarfed by things like the Muslim ban, which is both unconstitutional and makes us less safe.

 

FR: Do you think President Trump is aware of you?

ZP: No, I’m sure he has no idea and that’s perfectly fine with me. He is not my audience.

My job is to provide information to those who are looking to resist this administration as well as to those who are looking to hold this administration accountable, and make sure there is accurate fact-based information to push back against an administration that shows it has an aversion to the truth.

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I asked Petkanas whether he misses Texas.

He said he missed tacos and brisket. He made no mention of the Texas press corps.

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