The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It seems as if maybe the White House doesn’t really want to talk to the press

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during a briefing at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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In the last 10 days of his tenure as President Barack Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest spent more than seven hours in five daily news briefings answering questions from the media. His last words to the press corps before he left the White House?

“It’s been a genuine pleasure.”

It seems that the most recent person to occupy that position doesn’t share Earnest’s assessment of holding news briefings. Over the past two months, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her deputies haven’t spent a combined seven hours briefing the media.

On Thursday, we looked at President Trump’s indifference to talking to the media, exemplified by the number of solo news conferences he has held: One. Obama held more than a dozen over his first 16 months in office.

Trump obviously can’t spend all of his time talking to the media, but, given the importance of his job, it seems as if someone ought to. That’s why there’s a daily press briefing, so that common questions from the media can be answered in the same place at once. Since Trump took office, though — and even more so since Sanders took over for Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer — those daily briefings have been far less “daily” and far less “briefings.”

We looked at data from the White House website and from the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara to track how often press secretaries held briefings (or informal “gaggles,” usually while traveling) and how long they lasted. (Official transcripts generally include start and end times for the briefings.)

The picture since the beginning of 2016 looks like this. (Each bar indicates the time and duration of a briefing. Some are at odd times due to travel.)

Those blue lines — Earnest and his deputies — are a lot denser and longer than the red lines during Spicer’s and Sanders’s tenures.

But we can be more explicit about it.

Earnest held briefings on more than 44 percent of the days he was press secretary, with his deputies covering another 8 percent. That’s a total of about 52 percent, of the 71 percent of days in a week that aren’t the weekend. Spicer has held briefings on 36 percent of the days and Sanders on 35 percent.

When Sanders holds news briefings, they’re often quite short. Earnest’s briefings lasted an average of 69 minutes. Spicer’s averaged 37 minutes. Sanders’s average 20 minutes. That’s only five minutes longer than her deputies spend briefing the press — and is less time than Earnest’s deputies spent.

Those numbers includes gaggles, which are generally shorter. Looking only at briefings, Earnest spent about an average of 76 minutes talking to the media, to Spicer’s 43 and Sanders’s 27 minutes. Earnest’s deputies averaged 54 minutes.

The length of a briefing doesn’t entirely capture how much information is shared by the press secretary. Sanders will often appear at briefings accompanied by someone else from the administration, who will address the press corps and take questions. That’s not without value, but it tends to limit the amount of time that reporters can use to ask questions of Sanders, the representative of the president.

Sanders has had guests join her at briefings far more than Earnest or Spicer did. When she has a guest, the length of her briefings ticks up to 36 minutes, on average. Without guests, they average 21 minutes, a drop of 14 minutes. (Earnest’s briefings with guests were an average of 4 minutes longer. Spicer’s were only about a minute longer.)

So to summarize: Sarah Sanders has held briefings less frequently than her two predecessors, her briefings have been shorter, and she has been more likely to fill up time with guests who can’t speak to what the White House is doing.

Between January 2016 and Jan. 20, 2017, Earnest spent 11,800 minutes briefing the media, with his deputies adding another 906 minutes. Since late last July, about 10 months, Sanders has spent 2,800 minutes briefing the media, only about four more hours than Spicer spent during his tenure in the White House.

Spicer worked there for four fewer months.