It’s been a bad few weeks for Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, and it might just get worse before it gets better as efforts to convince Americans mail-in voting is safe may put him in direct conflict with President Donald Trump.
Guided by a public relations firm, DeJoy and the US Postal Service are now scrambling to clean up after weeks of criticism and allegations that the Trump administration was using the agency to meddle in November’s election. DeJoy’s efforts at two congressional hearings and other public appearances will be critical.
After an emergency closed-door meeting Saturday between DeJoy and the Postal Service Board of Governors, a source familiar tells CNN the agency engaged PR firm Weber Shandwick to help manage crisis messaging and combat some of the anti-Postal Service and mail-in voting rhetoric coming from the White House.
Shortly afterwards, the Postal Service put out a statement from DeJoy suspending any changes until after the election, but did not say whether the changes already made, like the removal of high-volume letter sorters, would be reversed.
DeJoy has begun preparing for his congressional hearings for this Friday and Monday, two sources close to the postmaster general tell CNN. The new job has thrust DeJoy from obscurity into the spotlight, a position those close to him say he is not quite comfortable with. He is also conducting personal outreach of his own with Congress this week, calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Perhaps the most public-facing postmaster general since Benjamin Franklin, DeJoy is also considering capitalizing on his newfound spotlight by doing local television interviews to assuage voters over fears their mail-in ballots will not be safe with the US Postal Service, a source told CNN.
While many close to DeJoy blame postal unions for the leaks and negative press, he is also preparing to record a public service announcement alongside union leaders from the National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union that will air on television stations around the country starting in September. Ronnie Stutts, the president of the National Rural Mail Carrier Association, confirmed he would be part of this effort with other union leaders.
But a PSA and local interviews to assure Americans that voting by mail is safe and efficient runs completely counter to the narrative set by Trump, who has continued to attack the process with unproven accusations that it is rife for fraud.
Trump has also complained about the timing of the hearings, saying they’re intended to draw attention away from next week’s Republican National Convention. “Always playing right into their hands!,” Trump tweeted, calling on action to change it from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Senate hearing – run by Republicans – is Friday; the House hearing – run by Democrats – is Monday.
According to a CNN Poll released Tuesday, 34% of registered voters say they prefer to vote by mail in the presidential election, 22% say they want to vote early at a polling place, and just 43% say they would prefer to vote in-person on Election Day.
The partisan divide is stark. Among supporters of the President, 66% say they prefer to vote in person on Election Day. Those voters backing former Vice President Joe Biden mostly prefer to vote by mail (53%).
How to vote
Sources close to DeJoy describe him as somewhat Trumpian himself. A New York native, DeJoy is a business man who is known for speaking his mind. And like Trump, sources close to DeJoy and others who have sat in meetings with him describe him as a Washington outsider, unaware of the level of politics that this job would hold.
“He did not seem to understand that he would have to deal with Congress on anything,” one source familiar with DeJoy’s attitude told CNN.
“He was brought in because of his experience to help run a business, to help fix a broken business,” a friend of DeJoy’s said. “This has all become too political.”
But unlike Trump, DeJoy seems to be learning quickly on how best to navigate Washington. With a speedy willingness to testify and personal calls to top Democrats, DeJoy is actively putting up a defining line between himself and the White House, one Trump is likely to notice.
The suspension of the changes and implementation of additional resources, make voting-by-mail appear legitimate, when Trump has actively worked to discredit it.
Postal Service workers started sounding alarms earlier this month after changes instituted by DeJoy, a Trump ally and donor, caused delivery service delays. With millions of Americans expected to vote by mail amid a pandemic, the massive delays lead to outcry from Democratic and Republican lawmakers over ballot access and vote count ahead of the November election.
Alarming changes at the Postal Service
Last week, the Postal Service inspector general began a review into these changes and how they may impact the election, after senators demanded an investigation. State officials also voiced concern about election integrity after more than 40 states received letters from the Postal Service warning them that ballots may not be delivered in time.
While USPS sent warnings on potential election delays late last week, CNN obtained documents showing plans to remove nearly 700 high volume letter sorters ahead of November. And images of blue mailboxes being carted away on trucks started circulating on social media. While some Republicans argued that the removal plan was an effort to save the Postal Service from its dire financial situation, the timing, coupled with Trump’s assault on mail-in voting, fueled allegations that the Trump administration was using the Postal Service to influence the election, a charge DeJoy denies.
Tuesday, Democratic attorneys general from at least 20 states launched a multi-pronged legal effort to push back on the recent changes that disrupted mail delivery across the country and triggered accusations that Trump and his appointees are trying to undermine mail-in voting. DeJoy “acted outside of his authority to implement changes to the postal system, and did not follow the proper procedures under federal law,” according to a statement from Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed one of the lawsuits.
At roughly the same time the Democratic lawsuits were announced, DeJoy released a statement suspending all the changes to the Postal Service until after the election.
“To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded,” DeJoy said.
According to the statement, USPS is also ramping up capabilities ahead of the election: expanding a leadership task force on election mail and engaging “standby resources in all areas of our operations, including transportation, to satisfy any unforeseen demand.”
But questions remain on whether the damage has already been done. USPS did not respond to multiple requests for comment on what this meant would happen to machines and boxes that were already removed.
In a statement, USPS said it has worked with Weber Shandwick for over a decade.
“Weber Shandwick has been the communications agency of record for the United States Postal Service since 2009, including strategy, marketing, crisis, internal and external communications services,” the statement from USPS said.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.