The New York Times published a powerful story last week about President Trump’s growing isolation in the White House, with colorful details such as Trump’s tendency to interrupt advisers during meetings to call them “freaking idiots” (except he doesn’t use the word “freaking”).
Asked to comment by the Times’s reporters about this, the White House said nothing. It did not respond.
Similarly, it offered no response when The Washington Post asked the White House about Trump’s false claim during a post-Christmas Day visit to U.S. troops in Iraq that he boosted military pay by 10 percent.
Reporters are used to officials who respond to their inquiries with a terse “no comment.” This was typically the practice in prior presidential administrations when officials saw no strategic value in rebutting an unflattering story.
But as in so many things, the Trump administration is different. Instead of “no comment,” Trump’s press representatives often don’t bother saying anything at all.
“This is the least responsive White House press operation I’ve ever dealt with by far,” said Peter Baker, a veteran White House reporter for the New York Times and one of the co-authors of the story about Trump’s isolation. “There are certainly individuals there who are professional and try to be helpful when they can, and I appreciate their efforts, I really do. But as a whole, I’ve learned not to expect answers even to basic questions.”
Adds Baker, “I don’t know why that is. I don’t take it personally. But it’s a lost opportunity on their part to get their side of the story out.”
The White House has had no response to stories large and small in recent days: reports that Trump planned to meet with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell, whom he has criticized (no response to Agence France-Presse); the partial shutdown of the federal government (no response to Reuters or USA Today); a report by an advocacy group that wealthy donors gave $55 million to groups supporting his reelection, despite Trump’s stated opposition to such donations during the 2016 campaign (no response to The Washington Post); Trump’s statement that former secretary of state Rex Tillerson was “dumb as a rock” (no response to CNBC); a piece in the Times reporting that a podiatrist may have helped Trump dodge the draft when Trump was a young man at the height of the Vietnam War.
At the same time, the White House seems to have all but stopped explaining Trump’s bizarre tweets.
After Trump tweeted on Christmas Eve that the border wall “will be built with the Shutdown money plus funds already in hand,” the New York Times sought comment from the White House about what “shutdown money’’ was. It got no response.
There was also no response to reporters’ inquiries about what Trump meant when he tweeted a few hours later that he “just gave out a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas.”
Reporters say White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and her deputies don’t always give them the silent treatment. But getting a response often depends — on the news outlet, on the reporter, on the nature of the story. Favored outlets, such as Fox News, tend to get a better hearing. Others, not so much.
“I would say they can be responsive but not always helpful,” said Jonathn Karl, ABC News’s chief White House correspondent. “We can usually get some kind of acknowledgment of a request, but the answer is likely to be ‘no comment.’”
Another prominent correspondent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing company policy, said the nonresponsiveness was a result of understaffing and a boss — Trump — who believes he’s his own best spokesman. The press office reportedly has lost about half its staff since its peak last year, this correspondent said.
As for working under Trump: The press staff “doesn’t have a natural message to drive every day,” as other presidents tried to do, the reporter said. “He [Trump] makes it up every few seconds, so they’re afraid to do anything. . . . It’s not a place where being a freewheeling thinker is valued and rewarded. It’s all about the whims of one man.”
As a practical matter, the White House’s silence violates one of the core tenets of public relations — that is, always get a word in edgewise, no matter how damaging a story may be.
By being nonresponsive, he said, the White House and Trump get to have it both ways: It “proves” to his base that the mainstream media is ignoring his views while enabling him to complain about press bias and “fake news.”
Trump’s predecessors tried to engage “more than the hardcore base” to broaden the president’s support, Parnell said. “Not him. What matters are those who already agree with him.”
What does the White House think of this? It’s hard to know.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about its tendency not to respond to requests for comment.