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‘I have no idea’: The White House’s spokesmen aren’t speaking much these days

By Paul Farhi

June 13, 2017 at 10:53 AM

by Paul Farhi

More and more, the White House press office is saying less and less.

On question after question, press secretary Sean Spicer and deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders have responded with the verbal equivalent of a shrug. They have repeatedly answered that they can't answer, don't know, or must refer the questioner to someone else.

Has President Trump taped his conversations in the White House, as he suggested last month? "I have no idea," Sanders said Thursday.

Does the president have confidence in his attorney general? "I have not had a discussion with him about that," Spicer replied Tuesday. (Sanders followed up two days later by saying "absolutely.")

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer was repeatedly unable to answer reporters' questions at his June 2 briefing at the White House. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Did the president watch former FBI director James B. Comey's testimony before the Senate? "I don't know if he's seen much of it," Sanders said last week.

At the same time, the administration's press representatives are meeting less often with the press. During Trump's first 100 days in office, Spicer and Sanders held 53 official briefings and "gaggles," informal, untelevised Q&As; with small groups of reporters — a rate of about once every two days. In the 43 days since then, just 15 such sessions have been held, or once every three days. The briefings are getting briefer, too: Early on, Spicer engaged with reporters for an hour or longer; during his May 30 briefing, he took questions for just 11 minutes.

Spicer's briefing on Monday may have set a record for brevity — he took questions for less than 11 minutes. Among his responses to 22 questions, he cited previous presidential statements, deferred answering or said he didn't know 11 times.

Some reporters say they can feel a chill in the White House briefing room.

"One major change [from previous administrations] is the hostility emanating from the administration for certain members of the press," said April Ryan, who has covered the White House since President Bill Clinton's last term. Ryan said Mike McCurry, Clinton's press secretary, once described the White House's interactions with the media as "a friendly adversarial relationship." Nowadays, she said, "the friendly has been dropped from that analogy."

Related: [A Beltway tradition is on life support. Will we miss the White House briefing if it dies?]

Over the past month, Spicer and SandersHuckabee have said they couldn't or wouldn't address reporters' questions about such topics as the timing of the president's decision about moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, about the process for selecting a new FBI director or about whether Trump intends to replace two business executives who quit a presidential advisory panel in protest of his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders both lead press briefings on behalf of the president — but the two have some pretty big stylistic differences. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The press staff's most consistent no-comment territory, however, has been the congressional and special-counsel investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Spicer and Sanders now reflexively pass any inquiry about that subject to Trump's personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz.

Of course, that hasn't stopped reporters from trying to get answers.

During Thursday's gaggle, Sanders offered the same response — talk to Kasowitz — five times. At one point, tired of the repetition, she compared reporters to young children. "I'm kind of looking around for my kids because I feel like, with toddlers, you get to answer the same question over and over, so I'm in good practice for this," she said.

Repeated questions about alleged recordings of the president's conversations with Comey prompted more snark. Asked if she could find out whether such a recording system existed in the Oval Office, Sanders replied, "Sure, I'll try to look under the couches."

In an interview Saturday, Spicer said the rapid pace of issues and events at the White House warrants a cautious approach in responding. "I think we're trying to ensure that we offer the most accurate information possible regarding what the president is thinking on an issue. We can't and won't get ahead of the president's thinking."

He also said reporters shared some of the responsibility for the White House's wariness. "There's so much 'gotcha journalism,' where the press wants to parse every word to create a story, that we have to be as precise as possible," Spicer said. "The news has become about the clip and the segment rather than about understanding the issue."

But the White House's reluctance to comment can sometimes seem like deflection or evasion amid the news of the day. As a presidential decision about withdrawing from the Paris treaty loomed late last month, for example, Spicer deployed a series of dodges I-don't-knows and I'll-get-back-to-yous to address Trump's beliefs about climate science.

"Can you say whether or not the president believes that human activity is contributing to the warming of the climate?" a reporter asked Spicer during a briefing on May 30.

"Honestly, I haven't asked him," he responded. "I can get back to you."

Two days later, Time magazine reporter Zeke Miller circled back, noting that the president was about to announce his decision on the climate agreement.

"What does the president actually believe about climate change? Does he still believe it's a hoax? Can you clarify that? Because apparently nobody else at the White House can."

Spicer's reply: "I have not had an opportunity to have that discussion."

Although the Obama White House had its own reputation for bobbing and weaving, the Trump media operation has had to grapple with the president's tendency to contradict its statements.

Trump also has announced some decisions before his communications staff was informed or prepared.

The White House press shop had to scramble last week to put out an official statement about Trump's pick for FBI director, Christopher Wray, after Trump had tweeted the nomination earlier in the morning. The five-hour delay in issuing the statement indicated that Trump's tweet had taken his staff by surprise.

Last month, after his aides rushed to put out the word that the president had fired Comey because of a memo from the deputy attorney general asserting that the FBI director had mishandled the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server, Trump gave an interview to NBC stating that he fired Comey because of "this Russia thing."

Shortly after that, the president acknowledged in a tweet his tendency to preempt his aides and advisers: "As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!"

A White House press aide to Obama offers a blunter assessment: Trump, no fan of reporters, has decided that he doesn't want his spokespeople to say much to them. "My guess," he said, "is their strategy of dismembering their press shop is another means to undermine the press at large."


Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.

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