With the United States on the brink of a potential military conflict with Iran on Thursday, the Pentagon decided to say . . . well, almost nothing.
Officials at the Department of Defense summoned reporters to a hastily arranged briefing to discuss the tense situation unfolding in the Gulf of Oman after Iran’s military shot down an American surveillance drone. The incident followed attacks on shipping vessels in the region last week.
But when reporters assembled at the Pentagon’s briefing room, a spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, quickly set the tone: “At this time, we’re not going to be taking questions,” he announced.
What followed was less a briefing than an audio news release.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, head of U.S. air forces in the Middle East, piped in via a telephone line to read a prepared statement. He called the Iranian missile strike on the unmanned aircraft “a dangerous and escalatory attack” that could have endangered civilians since it occurred near commercial flight paths.
And that was that. The event concluded about three minutes after it started.
The all-too-brief briefing marked the first time in more than a year that a military officer or press secretary has addressed the press — and through it, the American public — with TV cameras rolling.
For years, Pentagon officials held briefings about once a week. But those became less frequent after President Trump took office in 2017 and then stopped altogether last year. The Pentagon’s retreat appears to be part of a broader pullback on public engagement by the Trump administration, which has sought to marginalize the press.
The White House itself has all but killed off its press briefings; as of Thursday, outgoing press secretary Sarah Sanders hadn’t held one for a record 101 days. The State Department has also been more sporadic in its briefings.
But the Pentagon’s drought has been far longer and more encompassing.
Whereas Trump irregularly meets the news media in Oval Office pool “sprays,” on the South Lawn before traveling from the White House, in one-on-one interviews and in an occasional news conference, the Pentagon’s top officials have all but disappeared from view amid escalating tensions between the United States and Russia, North Korea and Iran, and ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Reporters speculate that some of this reluctance is related to the unsettled leadership of the Defense Department. Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary since the resignation of retired Gen. Jim Mattis in December, withdrew from consideration for the permanent job this week after his family’s troubled history emerged.
But others cite the Trump factor: “None of the brass wants to say anything that the president will contradict on Twitter a few hours later,” said a veteran military reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his employer hadn’t authorized him to give interviews.
As a result, the most activity the Pentagon’s press room has seen over the past year has been briefings by the likes of Kiss singer Gene Simmons, who was on a goodwill visit last month, and actor Gerard Butler, who promoted his starring role in a submarine movie on the Pentagon podium last fall. Butler’s appearance prompted one military publication, Task & Purpose, to headline its story, “Actor Gerard Butler has given more Pentagon briefings in the past 5 months than the DoD’s spokeswoman.” (The headline referred to a since-departed press secretary.)
The Pentagon’s televised briefings were important not just to journalists and the general public, but to service personnel and their families. The sessions sometimes provided valuable information about the duration of missions and the deployment of forces.
Senior military officials also used to hold regular off-camera “gaggles,” or informal news conferences, to answer questions about the news of the day. Those began to dwindle last year and have stopped altogether.
The Pentagon Press Association, composed of reporters who cover the military, protested the lack of briefings last month in a meeting with Hoffman, the newly named assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs.
“The Pentagon Press Association’s mission is to press for the fullest and most unfettered access possible for journalists,” the group said in a statement at the time. “The long absence in the Pentagon Briefing Room has deprived journalists of an important part of that access and has removed opportunities to compel officials to answer for decisions they make on behalf of the American people. We are hopeful that this will change soon.”
Not much has, as Thursday’s briefing may have demonstrated.
Asked afterward why reporters weren’t permitted to ask questions, Hoffman didn’t respond.