Remember those 20-minute sessions in which White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands before a room of reporters, pretends she is in a hurry and refers questions to the president’s lawyers? If trends continue, perhaps memories — and some dreary video clips — will be all that’s left of the White House briefing. As ABC News pointed out, Sanders did a mere 13 briefings across June, July and August, for a total of nearly four hours.
That’s considerably less than the White House’s own benchmark for summer 2017, not to mention the frequency of previous administrations. Obama’s reps held 35 briefings over the same period in 2016, for a total of 39 hours, according to ABC News.
The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) has expressed its displeasure with the disappearing act. “We have repeatedly expressed our concerns to Sarah about the infrequency and short duration of the briefings,” Olivier Knox, WHCA president, told the Erik Wemple Blog. “In essentially every meeting we’ve had in the past couple of months, I’ve raised this,” says Knox, who notes that he has pushed the matter himself and with the WHCA board.
And just what has been the response? “All I can tell you is she’s heard our concerns,” says Knox. Asked whether he has escalated the matter over the head of Sanders, Knox responds that Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive who joined the White House over the summer as deputy chief of staff for communications, was present for one of the meetings.
The Erik Wemple Blog has sent a where-the-heck-have-you-gone email to Sanders. We are awaiting a reply.
The last White House briefing took place on Sept. 10, which was 19 days after the previous session. Over the intervening weeks, a great deal has happened: There have been developments in the special counsel’s Russia probe, Sen. John McCain died, Trump riffed about Google searches, senators fought over documents relating to Brett M. Kavanaugh, etc. Chances to get Sanders on the record and on camera have been slim.
Who cares, counter many critics of the Trump White House. Whenever this blog has written about the shenanigans at the briefings under Sanders and her predecessor Sean Spicer, we have received notes from people wondering why reporters show up for the briefings in the first place. The White House’s talking heads, after all, say little of substance and seem to only get more sophisticated at dodging questions. “Send the interns,” urged press critic Jay Rosen at the start of the Trump administration.
Our response: The briefings are the one place where reporters can get on-the-record replies to their questions, even if those replies amount to junk-food information. Otherwise, reporters are dependent on the mercurial president’s comments at ceremonial events and, of course, “senior administration officials” spinning the news on background. And as Knox wrote in a piece titled “Save the (terrible) White House briefing” — and written during the Obama administration — the briefing conveys the helpful message that no one is above being questioned.
Trouble is, the WHCA can do little beyond urging White House officials to show up for briefings. “They’ve already made up their minds,” says a White House reporter who declined to speak on the record. Since Shine’s accession to the communications staff, the White House has appeared happy to let Trump himself (occasionally) speak for the whole operation while letting the media feed off of unnamed sources and official statements. “We’re between a rock and a hard place, and there’s nothing we can do to change their minds or change what is likely their communications strategy,” says the White House reporter.
So what are the next steps, Knox? “Nothing I could really talk about,” he responds.