Today, the Trump administration belatedly added an on-camera press briefing by press secretary Sean Spicer to the White House schedule, just one day after Spicer kicked off a firestorm by barring reporters from recording video or even audio of his gaggle with them. Following yesterday’s off-camera gaggle, White House reporters began using Twitter and their platforms to criticize the administration’s apparent new policy as a restriction on a free press.
Today, an exchange took place that illustrated exactly why this is so worrisome. Asked on camera whether the president believes that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, Spicer claimed, implausibly: “I have not sat down and talked with him about that specifically.” This absurd dodge might seem like a reason on-camera press briefings are pointless exercises in unanswered questions and that we might not be worse off without them. But Spicer’s answer today shows precisely why it’s crucial that these briefings endure — we need to have a record of such evasions, and the public needs to be able to see, on video, how Spicer’s interactions with the press play out.
The White House’s gradual elimination of the on-camera briefings is unprecedented and alarming. Under less incendiary presidents, these briefings were often dull affairs for people with lives outside the Beltway bubble. But they were largely seen as an unbreakable component of the press’s ability to hold White House officials accountable, even when press secretaries, of both parties, ducked tough questions and offered pabulum talking points. There was a record of the questions asked — and the refusal to answer them. A mere transcript of off-camera gaggles (which the White House has provided over the last week) is insufficient. Video provides the nuance and body language that a transcript cannot.
More broadly, these briefings are more essential than ever because of President Trump’s hostility to the press and basic transparency. Eliminating them would amount to the culmination of a strategy that lies at the heart of Trumpism: First, neutralize the news media, or, as top Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon has called it, “the opposition party.” Trump aims to undermine his supporters’ trust in a free press and reliance on it for information. In this context, characterizing the media as “fake news” then takes on a dual purpose: It helps accomplish that undermining of the media and becomes a justification for doing things (such as canceling briefings) that prevent the press from doing its job.
Trump had previously hinted that he might eliminate the briefings. But in recent days, matters have escalated considerably. Before today, the last on-camera press briefing Spicer conducted was more than a week ago. In the interim, the White House offered only press gaggles, off camera, with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and, on background, with a senior administration official on board Air Force One. This refusal to hold on-camera briefings notably occurred during the period after lawmakers grilled Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the widening Russia investigation and Trump admitted on Twitter that he was indeed under investigation by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
This period was also packed with other high-stakes news, including new developments in the Russia investigation, the shooting of GOP lawmakers at a baseball practice, another court ruling upholding a freeze on Trump’s Muslim ban, Senate Republicans’ ongoing secrecy over their health-care bill, and increasing tensions between the United States and Russia over Syria. During that time, the White House conducted no on-camera briefings for the press — or for the American people.
And so, when Spicer told reporters yesterday that they could not record the briefing, tensions boiled over. Dramatically live-tweeting from inside the White House, CNN’s Jim Acosta lambasted the administration’s “stonewalling” and “suppression of information.” Later, on television, Acosta said, “I think the White House for the United States of America should have these questions answered on camera, so we can see what they’re saying. And when they don’t do this, they’re just doing a disservice to the people of this country.”
Acosta is right. These press briefings are far more than daily entertainment or fodder for late-night satire. They are, in the modern political era, critical to the transparency and accountability that are the hallmarks of a functioning democracy. They provide a vivid, daily accounting to the public of the president’s actions, and, more critically, his and the White House’s competence and credibility. They might look like a game in which questions are asked and evaded, reporters are mocked or dismissed, and everyone chuckles uncomfortably. But that dance is more than just spectacle. It is the ongoing creation of a record — on video, for posterity — of the questions that need to be asked, and of whether the administration is willing to answer them.
“Slowly but surely we are being dragged into a new normal in this country,” Acosta said on CNN yesterday, “where the president of the United States is allowed to insulate himself from answering hard questions.”
As if all this weren’t enough, the White House offered one more display of contempt for the free press. When asked by the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray to comment yesterday on the reasons for the reduction in Spicer’s on-camera briefings, Bannon replied by text message, “Sean got fatter.”
That’s possibly a joke, or perhaps a mean, sophomoric put-down. But either way, Bannon’s real message shouldn’t get lost. His dismissiveness says it all: Questions about whether the briefings will continue don’t need to be engaged seriously; they’re only important for appearances; and if they can’t make the Trump camp look good, they’re not worth doing. For the White House, eliminating them entirely would be its greatest victory yet over “fake news.”