But as the press secretary’s baton has passed from Spicer to Sarah Sanders to Stephanie Grisham, the White House press briefing has gone from frequent to infrequent to functionally nonexistent. Sanders’s last formal briefing was March 11, 2019; Grisham, appointed to the post in July, has, as of press time, not held a single one.
In Trump’s third year in office, with impeachment steamrolling through Washington, the president’s top spokesperson is almost invisible. Instead, the president engages reporters directly on the White House lawn, typically right before departures on Marine One. Stephen Colbert has dubbed these impromptu scrums “chopper talks,” where, unlike in the White House briefing room, “the president sets all the rules.”
Spicer told me recently: “If the press corps on a daily basis has access to the president to ask their questions, then the question has to be asked: Why would you need a briefing when you can talk to the president himself on an extremely regular basis?” In other words, are we really missing anything?
If you ask Democratic presidential candidates, the disappearance of the White House press briefing is the loss of yet another cherished ritual of democratic governance, even if it was usually so boring that most Americans hardly ever tuned in. Joe Biden spokesman Andrew Bates told me in an email that the former vice president pledges to “restore daily White House press briefings and stand up for the rights of journalists.” Campaign officials for Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren also committed to do the same.
If you ask White House officials, the only thing Americans miss out on when the White House skips daily press briefings is getting to see a bunch of journalists trying to show off by acting self-important and judgy. Grisham, who did not respond to requests for comment, told Fox News in September that the briefings “have become a lot of theater” with reporters grandstanding for television audiences. “They’re writing books now,” she told Fox News. “They’re all getting famous off of this presidency.”
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary under President George W. Bush, says he’s partially a “traditionalist” who thinks the briefing benefits both the White House and the press corps. But “as a realist, there’s little to no value in having it in the Trump era. The animosity from the press toward the Trump people is so intense and it’s equally returned in spirit.”
For journalists assigned to cover the White House, their morning routines haven’t changed much in the 40-plus weeks without a formal briefing. They still scan their badges at the northwest gate and sit at desks in the West Wing’s press facilities. They still get occasional subject-matter briefings from administration officials. And yet, even with the chopper talks, some reporters sound bereft.
The loss of the briefings “has a negative effect on American democracy,” says Jonathan Karl, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News and head of the White House Correspondents’ Association, who has urged Grisham to bring them back. It’s “symbolically significant” to have a regular forum for questioning the president’s top flack, he continues. “I think it sends a message about accountability and transparency, and it’s a message seen not just around the United States, but around the world.”
Other reporters say the president can be even less responsive than the White House spokesperson. “He hears key words … and delivers the same talking points … without actually answering a new question and providing new information,” says CBS News White House reporter Weijia Jiang. Consider one chopper talk from August: “I am the chosen one,” he told reporters. “Somebody had to do it. So I’m taking on China. I’m taking on China on trade. And you know what? We’re winning.” Other times, he points to Marine One and says he can’t hear a reporter’s question before quickly moving on.
“I don’t think we should confuse access with good information,” says Liz Allen, a White House deputy communications director under President Barack Obama. “A lot of what the president says isn’t true or is embellished.” Allen notes that press secretaries may also lie or exaggerate, but says the briefing is a way to get them on the record and try to hold them accountable.
The irony is that while Trump administration officials may think they are thwarting the “fake news” media by withholding daily briefings, they might actually be impeding their own ability to do their job. Because basic questions aren’t being answered in the press briefing, reporters are bombarding the press secretary’s staff with emails and phone calls. Reporters are lined up at all hours of the workday outside the “upper press” area of the West Wing where the press secretary and her deputies sit. With these “traffic jams,” the press secretary’s office is constantly in a “catch-up situation,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who has sat in briefings and studied the relationship between the White House and the press corps for decades.
Allen and Fleischer both say that the very act of anticipating reporters’ questions from various news outlets help the communications staff shore up its own talking points. “If you’re doing the prep … it means that you’ve gone back and thoughtfully considered something and you’ve taken input from your policy counsels,” Allen says.
Fleischer also points out that the roles of the president and press secretary should be complementary: “The president announces what, and the press secretary explains why,” he says. Without this tag-team function under Trump, reporters are often left without deeper insight into his decisions. All they have is the president speaking for himself.
But maybe that’s the point. Joynt Kumar argues that the demise of the press briefing stems from Trump’s belief throughout his career that “he’s known how to communicate better than anybody else who tried to communicate for him.”
I asked Joynt Kumar if she had any expectation the briefings would return to the Trump White House. “Not much,” she said, chuckling. “You can always hope.”
Scott Nover is a writer in Washington.