Sounding as despondent as a resident of death row, White House press secretary Sean Spicer slogged through the daily briefing on Wednesday, making little news except for news about the briefing itself. As news briefings go, it really was brief — less than 12 minutes from Spicer’s opening statement to his abrupt departure. It was also oddly circumscribed by a White House edict banning TV cameras. Audio only, the White House decreed, turning an event regularly aired on live television into something out of the golden age of radio.
The day before, Spicer railed against “fake news” and huffed out of the briefing room.
On Thursday, there was even less. There was no briefing at all.
All of which raises a question: Oh, what’s the point?
What’s the purpose of assembling 70 or so journalists (in a room that seats 49), and letting them ask questions that aren’t really answered? What’s the deal with not showing the White House’s public face to the public itself? Whose interest is served by this kind of non-exchange of non-information?
As bad news has piled up around him, the president himself has suggested canceling the press briefings outright. Doing so would end a long, not-always-noble tradition of give-and-take between the press mob and the president’s representatives.
Journalists have reported from the White House grounds on a regular basis since the 1880s, first in 1881 when President James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin and lingered near death for more than two months. Grover Cleveland’s private secretary, Daniel Lamont, established the tradition of having a White House aide regularly answer reporters’ questions in the mid-1880s, according to historian Martha Joynt Kumar. Cleveland had a good reason for offloading the responsibility: Reporters had hounded him while he was on his honeymoon in 1886 with his 21-year-old wife, who had been his legal ward since she was 11.
Since then, the United States has been unique among democratic countries in holding a daily briefing that is both on the record and on camera, said Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s press secretary. Even the British, Earnest says, don’t televise the prime minister’s twice-daily news briefings or put them on the record, that is, directly attributable to a named individual.
As a Washington institution, the press briefings have established certain pecking orders (the TV reporters sit in the front row and ask the most combative questions), and made celebrities out of both dogged reporters (Sam Donaldson, Helen Thomas) and loyal briefers (Ari Fleischer, Dana Perino). As a trustworthy source of sound bites and TV clips, the briefings have been essential in establishing the day’s news — whether it be the Clinton administration’s comments on a blue dress or the Bush White House’s official justifications for invading Iraq.
The Trump White House considered tinkering with the status quo even before it was even the Trump White House. There was discussion among officials about moving the briefings off the White House grounds (hasn’t happened); about rearranging the briefing-room seating (hasn’t happened); and about holding fewer briefings than previous administrations (seems to be happening). “Maybe there’s a more effective way of delivering the news and having a more, you know, appropriate adult conversation with the media,” Spicer said in December.
To be sure, the briefings may never have had as high a profile as they did in the first two months of the Trump administration. The daily sessions were a great public curiosity, widely covered via live streams and live cable news. “Saturday Night Live” built its most memorable sketches around Spicer’s alleged abuse of the press, elevating not just “Spicey’s” profile but that of pixel-stained wretches like Glenn Thrush of the New York Times, too. Spicer also innovated in fitful ways, giving valuable question time to Trump-friendly talk-show hosts piped into the briefings via Skype and handing out media credentials to conspiracy peddlers.
Perhaps by design, however, the evidence so far suggests that the daily briefings have declined as an important source of information about what the president is thinking and planning each day.
Most obviously, Trump has shown that prefers to be his own PR man. His tweets have been his signature mode of communication, backed by semiregular interviews and sporadic news conferences. A fire hose of leaks from unnamed officials has filled in the parts of the picture that Trump refuses to address (among the frequent leaks: that Spicer’s days as press secretary are numbered).
Far worse, the briefings themselves have at times become untrustworthy sources of information. Both Spicer and assistant press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have made assertions in Trump’s behalf that the boss himself has contradicted within hours.
The continuing embarrassment of these press encounters, as well as the stream of adverse news, makes cutting back the briefings a seemingly useful strategy for the White House. Fewer briefings and audio-only sessions will produce fewer clips of Spicer answering (or deflecting) questions about Russian election interference and ongoing investigations. No briefings at all will enable Trump to dictate his own message, without the risk that his press secretary will have to explain it all to reporters.
Some Trump supporters may find that prospect appetizing. But it disappoints and scares those interested in accountability and transparency.
Earnest, now an NBC analyst, said it’s “valuable for our democracy” to have a senior official explaining and defending the president on a daily basis. Rather than a burden, he said, the Trump administration should relish the briefings as a platform to make its case.
“One thing we know is that for all his complaints about journalists, President Trump cares a lot about what they say about him,” Earnest said. “A daily briefing is a particularly effective venue for influencing the way journalists are talking and writing about the administration. . . . It’s an opportunity to tell the White House press corps and the rest of the world what he’s up to and why the course he’s chosen is the best way to go.”
If the briefings were to end, the real loser would be the country, said Peter Baker, the New York Times’ veteran White House reporter. “It would be . . . one more chip away at the foundational idea that people in power should be answerable to the public.”
While the briefings can be “an exercise in futility” for anyone seeking straightforward answers (a statement that predates Trump, Baker notes), the more important consideration is that the briefings “are literally the only time a White House can be forced to respond to questions on the record on a regular basis. Without a daily briefing, White House aides would simply hide behind anonymity to answer only the questions they want to answer, while ignoring those that may be uncomfortable or challenging, which would further a culture of secrecy and impunity in Washington.”