Democracy Dies in Darkness

Politics | Analysis

Spicer's claim that Trump's media availability is 'significant' is nonsense — particularly lately

By Philip Bump

June 20, 2017 at 3:21 PM

White House press secretary Sean Spicer conducts a daily briefing. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

During White House press secretary Sean Spicer's daily news briefing on Tuesday — the first on-camera briefing by Spicer in about a week — he was asked about the administration's increasing reliance on closed-door decision-making and decreasing availability to the public.

While defending his team, Spicer expanded his defense of the administration's transparency to include the man at the top.

"We've looked at a lot of data that suggests that, when you look at the number of availabilities and interviews that the president has given," Spicer said, "it's pretty significant compared to past administrations."

It's not clear what data Spicer was looking at, but we can look at one metric that suggests something different.

The American Presidency Project at University of California Santa Barbara tallies presidential news conferences. Herbert Hoover held 78 his first year in office — though he didn't have the benefit of television, much less social media. In recent administrations, that figure has fallen.

With Trump, it has almost entirely vanished.

Those figures exclude joint news conferences with other foreign leaders. If we include events like that, Trump has had 10, fewer than any president except Ronald Reagan.

Of course, Trump still has six months of the year to close the gap. But by June 20, 2009, Barack Obama had already had five regular news conferences, on Feb. 9, March 24, April 29, June 1 and June 2. His last was in July of that year, perhaps in part because it was also the news conference in which he disparaged a Cambridge, Mass., police officer, kicking up no small amount of outrage.

We made the tool below originally for Hillary Clinton, when she'd gone several hundred days without a news conference during the campaign. We revamped it for the president last fall, and are bringing it back now for obvious reasons.

Now, Trump used to give news conferences all the time. During the presidential primaries, Trump gave presser after presser, and even attacked Clinton for her own drought. But Accessible Trump came to a grinding halt after the end of July. Since that time — through the election and through the first 150 days of his presidency — Trump has held only two more full news conferences.

We noted another important metric on that chart. The last time Trump gave a sit-down interview to a reporter was on May 13, when he was interviewed by Fox News's Jeanine Pirro.

That was the last time the media was allowed access to the president for any extended period of time, setting aside a few questions answered at joint news conferences in the interim (including on May 18 and June 9). It was before the week of May 13, when we learned about Trump's revelation of classified information to the Russians, the D.C. brawl with Turkish President Erdogan's bodyguards, the appointment of the special counsel — and Trump's entire trip to the Middle East and Europe.

None of that has been addressed by the president to a member of the media in any substantive way.

That's particularly important too because the White House communications team has increasingly relied on "I haven't asked him that" as a response to probing questions about what the president is thinking or has done. When The Post raised the question of transparency with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders this week, she replied that the media had the ability to ask questions at any point. Sure. But a response of "I don't know" doesn't do much to inform the public.

Since his last interview and his last news conference, Trump has made a point of noting that he uses social media as a way of speaking directly to the people. That's the flip side of Sanders's point. The communications shop only offers answers to some questions; Trump only offers responses on social media to questions that he chooses to answer.

But, in one sense, Trump is unusually accessible, given his habit of tweeting things without much of a filter. That does make him more accessible than a normal president.

Unless he has blocked you.


Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Post based in New York.

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