McEnany was ready for this one.
Quickly flipping pages in her briefing binder, McEnany launched into an extended critique of the New York Times, which broke the Russia story last week. Reading from her notes, she rattled off a series of alleged errors published by the Times in its reporting about Russia over the past four years, including a claim that 17 intelligence agencies had agreed about Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Only four agencies had done so.)
Then she unleashed the uppercut punch: “It is inexcusable, the failed Russia reporting of the New York Times. And I think it’s time that the New York Times, and also The Washington Post, hand back their Pulitzers.”
And with that, McEnany snapped her binder shut and strode out of the briefing room, trailed by the unanswered shouts and murmurs of the White House press corps.
Such dramatic exits have become a signature of McEnany’s brief tenure as press secretary. Since taking the job in April, the former Trump-friendly CNN pundit and spokeswoman for Trump’s reelection campaign has often waited until the briefing’s conclusion — that is, the moment when she determines the briefing is concluded — to unload on the assembled reporters.
The excoriation is typically punctuated by a binder slam and a determined stride away from the lectern, almost like the slugger who doesn’t bother to watch the pitch he just swatted as it sails into the bleacher seats. The unspoken message seems to be: Take that, hacks!
McEnany, for example, concluded her briefing on June 1 by playing a White House-produced video of police embracing protesters, images that she said “have not been played all that often” in the news media.
And when she was asked in early May if she wanted to take back her assertion in a Fox Business Network interview in February that “we will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here,” McEnany responded by rhetorically asking if news organizations would like to take back articles that had downplayed the threat. After rattling off several of them, she delivered her exit line: “I’ll leave you with those questions and maybe you’ll have some answers in a few days.”
During another very special McEnany moment in May, the press secretary closed things out by narrating an illustrated PowerPoint presentation of five questions she said reporters should pose to Obama administration officials in support of Trump’s claims of a conspiracy against him.
“If I write them out in a slide format — maybe we’re visual learners and you guys will follow up with journalistic curiosity,” she said sarcastically in introducing her lecture. Sounding like a teacher handing out an assignment, she concluded: “It’s a long weekend. You guys have three days to follow up on those questions. And I certainly hope the next time I ask, some hands go up, because Obama’s spokesperson should be asked those questions because President Trump’s spokespeople certainly would be.”
And . . . scene.
The would-be smackdowns seemed so orchestrated that all it lacked in stagecraft was the kind of musical punctuation that “CSI: Miami” used to punch up Detective Horatio Caine’s bon mots before jumping to the opening credits and theme song, the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
As a practical matter, McEnany’s abrupt exits have the advantage of foreclosing upon follow-up questions or comments. They give her, in effect, the last word. They’re also in keeping with her boss’s perpetual denunciations of the media as “fake news.”
McEnany didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Her mic-dropping moments are really designed for two audiences beyond the denizens of the briefing room: Trump himself and the universe of Trump-friendly websites, said Ryan Lizza, Politico’s chief Washington correspondent and a CNN contributor. The websites, he said, turn her set pieces into share-worthy clips “for the MAGA-sphere” within minutes of her walkout.
“We used to have this quaint idea that the press secretary wasn’t just a mouthpiece for the president, that half of the job was serving the press and the public,” said Lizza, who appeared with McEnany on CNN many times when she was a network contributor. “That model is gone now. Now it’s almost pure theater, and [she’s serving] the negative partisanship that drives all else.”
Social scientists study the way in which people end interactions with others, known as “leave-taking behavior,” and McEnany’s behavior fits into this analytical framework, said Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor at Texas A&M who specializes in rhetoric and public affairs.
In friendly or cordial relationships, she said, a person typically will begin to position themselves toward an exit and announce their intention to depart. They’ll reaffirm the relationship by summarizing what’s been said and suggest, if only in vague terms, a future meeting.
The failure to do these things sends the opposite message about a relationship — that one party has disrespect for the other.
McEnany’s scripted walk-offs point to “how adversarial the relationship between the press secretary and the press is at present,” said Mercieca. “The abrupt ending signals a lack of respect for the press, especially after she has berated their reporting.”
Correction: This story originally stated that the “CSI: Miami” theme song is the Who’s “Who Are You.” It is actually the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” “Who Are You” is the theme song of the original “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”