When CNN's Dylan Byers reported Wednesday that counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway had been pulled off the air by the White House, his story included a familiar line: “Conway did not respond to a request for comment.”
Within minutes of the report's publication, however, Conway was talking — to rival network MSNBC, claiming Byers and CNN had it wrong.
Half an hour later, Conway's “might be doing TV later tonight” became is doing TV later tonight.
To review: Conway chose not to comment before CNN published its report, but in the 55 minutes afterward, she pushed back in an off-camera interview with MSNBC and announced an appearance on Fox News to further counter the idea that she had been sidelined.
Byers viewed the sequence as a series of calculated maneuvers.
Conway's appearance Wednesday night on “Hannity” did not negate the fact that she hadn't been on TV since the previous Tuesday. Though Sean Hannity indicated that she had been booked several days in advance, Conway did not directly dispute Byers's report that off-message statements on television had “led the president and his top advisers to conclude that her appearances were doing more harm than good for the administration.”
Instead, Conway talked about how busy she had been with other professional and personal responsibilities and claimed she hadn't been given an opportunity to comment in CNN's original story.
“It would have been nice to have been consulted on that,” she said. But she was. Again, Byers sought her for comment. She didn't respond.
As Byers suggested, there does appear to be a strategy that Team Trump executed throughout the campaign and carried into the White House: When a journalist asks for comment on what seems sure to be an unfavorable story, do not provide one. Wait for the report to be published, then attack it as unfair or inaccurate. Maybe even act as if you didn't have a chance to tell your side of the story.
The New York Times's Feb. 15 report on contact between Russian intelligence officials and Trump campaign aides included this: “The FBI declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment.”
But Trump had plenty to say on Twitter after he saw the story on the front page of the Times and all over cable news.
At a news conference the next day, Trump claimed the Times never asked for comment.
In a similar episode, The Washington Post's Feb. 2 report on Trump's contentious phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull included this: “A White House spokesman declined to comment.”
A day later, the president tweeted that the “fake news media lied about” what was actually a “very civil conversation.”
As I wrote during the campaign, Trump's calculus seems to be that he stands to gain more by waiting to bash a “hit piece” after the fact than he does by sharing his perspective in the first place. He might be right. After all, he did win the election by casting the media as an enemy.
But Trump's tactic, however effective, suggests that he is not invested in doing his part to ensure press coverage is balanced. In cases in which he and his aides refuse to speak, they actually seem to prefer unbalanced coverage — just so they can slam it later.