It’s a warm spring morning in Washington, and once again the blacktop at the White House is starting to heat up. People lugging cameras, microphones and notepads are scrambling to get into place. There is milling, so much milling.
Sarah Sanders is about to speak.
As usual, President Trump’s press secretary is brief — just a few comments dismissing pro-impeachment Republican Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) — but it’s the setting, not what’s said, that may be more significant: Sanders makes her comments to a group of journalists assembled on the White House’s north driveway, a stretch of asphalt that runs from Pennsylvania Avenue to the president’s home and office — about the length of a fast-food drive-through lane.
For months, the driveway has become the informal locale for interviews with administration officials. While Trump prefers to engage reporters amid Marine One’s whirring helicopter blades on the White House’s South Lawn, the north driveway has become the only place to grab Sanders or officials such as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway for a few on-camera comments.
The White House, of course, has a very nice room for press briefings located just a few steps from the driveway. But these days, the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room is like a Blockbuster video store: dusty, cobwebbed and abandoned. The last time Sanders showed up for a press briefing there was 83 days ago , a record period for not briefing the press. She established the previous record (43 days) in March — which broke the record she set in January. The Pentagon and State Department have all but abandoned press briefings, too, in what amounts to a semiofficial policy of avoiding and diminishing the press.
Nowadays Sanders only shows up for driveway drive-bys, many of which last no more than five or six minutes and are held seemingly by chance.
Correspondents have complained about these informal sessions to Sanders, to no avail. (The White House Correspondents’ Association hasn’t formally protested, according to its president, Olivier Knox.) After one driveway mini-press conference last week, a Bloomberg News White House reporter, Margaret Talev, trailed the press secretary as she walked back to the West Wing, asking why the White House couldn’t move the Q&As into the briefing room and out of the 90-degree heat, according to reporters who witnessed the encounter. She apparently received no answer. (Talev declined to comment for this story; Sanders didn’t respond at all).
But the basic gripe about the gaggles, as they’re known, isn’t about the weather; it’s their brevity and impromptu nature.
“Certainly the ad hoc nature of the driveway gaggle makes our jobs more challenging compared to being able to prepare for a pre-announced briefing in the Brady Room,” said Steve Herman, White House bureau chief for VOA News. “Is this arrangement more beneficial for the administration? I don’t know. There’s certainly a more random nature to it, and this administration has no qualms about breaking with tradition.”
In fact, there’s no schedule, no set topics and no established duration to the driveway meetups. They occur essentially at random, or rather whenever Sanders or Conway are done giving another exclusive interview to Fox News on “Pebble Beach,” the gravelly patch off the driveway where White House TV correspondents do their “stand ups,” or live reports.
The driveway ritual started after White House reporters began snagging Sanders and Conway as they walked back to the West Wing from the Fox cameras. The process soon became ritualized; reporters watch the Fox spot, or the live feed of the network on monitors, for signs that Sanders or Conway or a White House official such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin or economic adviser Larry Kudlow are wrapping up their interviews.
Then word goes out, and correspondents and camera people mobilize like a fighter squadron to intercept the official on his or her trip back to the White House. Sometimes there’s a small lectern set up to guide the official to the most favorable spot for TV cameras.
Though brief and irregular, the driveway interviews are often the only chance to capture video footage of an administration official talking about the news of the day, which makes them critical for TV correspondents.
But if the administration’s aim is to downplay the role of the press, the driveway strategy may be working, some reporters say.
“I think it gives them an element of control,” said Brian Karem, a CNN contributor who covers the White House for Playboy magazine. “It’s harder to [ask] follow-ups. It is harder to coordinate. . . . I personally think it does the White House a disservice, but I can understand in the short run why they do it, because it enables them to cut down their interaction time with reporters.”
Karem adds, “I think the administration wants to interact with us on their terms, and many in the administration view the briefing room as [the news media’s] turf and not theirs.”
A White House TV correspondent pointed out that the gaggles are not only much shorter than the briefings were, but that reporters aren’t mic’d in the driveway as they are in the briefing room — a key advantage to those being interviewed. Since viewers can’t hear the questions being asked, Sanders and other officials can answer any way they’d like. (Trump has the same advantage during his South Lawn encounters.)
“The White House is making the case that Trump and top officials are accessible because of these gaggles,” said the correspondent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his network discourages unauthorized statements. “But these [interviews] actually limit reporters in their ability to ask thorough questions, as well as follow-ups.”