Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday that news conferences traditionally held in the White House briefing room could be moved to a larger space, not in the White House, to allow for “more press, more coverage from all over the country.”
Priebus spoke on ABC’s “This Week” hours after Esquire magazine published a report that suggested that the media could be permanently evicted from their longtime space in the White House itself to other buildings nearby. In that report, incoming White House Communications Director Sean Spicer acknowledged there has been “some discussion about how to do it.”
“The only thing that’s been discussed is whether or not the initial press conferences are going to be in that small press room,” Priebus said Sunday, calling the 49-seat briefing room “very, very tiny” and suggesting a larger space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building — located just west of the White House — could better accommodate scores of reporters who want to cover the Trump administration.
“You can fit four times the amount of people in the press conference, allowing more press, more coverage from all over the country,” he said. “Some of this is getting way out of whack, and I think people should be encouraged that we have so many people who want to participate.”
He did not mention evicting journalists from their workspace in the White House, located steps from the West Wing offices of the president and senior administration officials. The Esquire report quoted an anonymous “senior official” referring to the media as “the opposition party” and saying: “I want ’em out of the building. We are taking back the press room.”
Jeff Mason, a Reuters reporter who chairs the White House Correspondents’ Association, said he met Sunday with Spicer to get more details about Trump’s plans and said the association would “object strenuously to any move that would shield the president and his advisers from the scrutiny of an on-site White House press corps.”
After the meeting, Mason confirmed that Trump’s team is considering moving the daily briefings out of the briefing room to “a larger facility on the White House complex.”
What remains unclear is whether Trump is considering moving the press working space out of the White House proper into other parts of the complex. Given that direct access to senior administration officials is “critical to transparency and to journalists’ ability to do their jobs,” Mason said he “made clear that the WHCA would view it as unacceptable if the incoming administration sought to move White House reporters out of the press work space behind the press briefing room.”
Spicer, he said, “agreed to discuss any additional changes that the incoming administration considers with the WHCA ahead of time” and also “expressed concern that journalists adhere to a high level of decorum at press briefings and press conferences.”
Vice President-elect Mike Pence also addressed the Esquire report in a CBS “Face the Nation” interview aired Sunday. Like Priebus, he said any change would be to “accommodate the increased interest” in the new administration and said “no decision has been made” on whether to do so.
It’s not unheard of for an incoming administration to consider changes to the media working space in the White House, but since the current press room arrangement was formalized during the Nixon administration, no president has followed through on changes that could be interpreted as an effort to shield oneself from public scrutiny.
George Stephanopoulos, who questioned Priebus on Sunday, wrote about an abortive plan from then-first lady Hillary Clinton to convert the White House press office back into an indoor swimming pool in “All Too Human,” his memoir of his time as a senior Clinton aide.
“Barbara Bush told her we should show you guys who’s boss right from the start,” Stephanopoulos wrote, quoting himself speaking to reporters at the time. “Easy for her to say; she doesn’t have to deal with you anymore.”
Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.