White House press briefings are a running conversation — for now, anyway. President Trump is mulling drastic changes that could include reducing the frequency of briefings to once a week and requiring reporters to submit written questions, according to the New York Times.
Trump previously floated the possibility of scrapping the briefings altogether and providing written answers to all questions. His latest idea is actually less extreme, by comparison.
In either scenario, however, the likely result is the same: an end to back-and-forth exchanges between journalists and the president's spokesmen, which can be contentious, repetitive — and valuable.
I'll give you an example:
Six times in a single Q&A session last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to say when the president might reveal the existence (or nonexistence) of recorded conversations between him and former FBI director James B. Comey.
Asked again on Tuesday, Spicer suddenly offered a timetable. He pointed to Trump's vague promise on June 9 (“I'll tell you about it over a very short period of time”) and said “that would probably mean by the end of this week.”
This is what I mean by “a running conversation.” In the moment, a single briefing can appear unproductive when the press corps and the press secretary frustrate each other on the same question a half dozen times. But regular briefings with unfiltered questions and follow-ups have a way of gradually producing important information for the public.
On June 13, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders batted away a question about reports that Trump, during a lunch with senators earlier in the day, had called a Republican health-care bill that passed in the House last month “mean” and said he expects the Senate to improve it.
“We don't comment on rumors or private conversations of that nature,” Sanders said.
On Monday, Spicer couldn't (or wouldn't) say whether Trump had even seen the Senate version of the bill.
“I don’t know,” Spicer said. “I’ve not asked that question.”
A day later, however, Spicer seemed to confirm reports that Trump had said in a meeting with technology executives that the GOP health-care plan needs “more heart.”
“I mean the president clearly wants a bill that has heart in it,” Spicer said. “He believes that health care is something that is near and dear to so many families and individuals. He made it clear from the beginning that that was one of his priorities. And as the Senate works its way through this bill, as the House did, any ideas are welcome to strengthen it, to make it more affordable, more accessible and deliver the care that it needs.”
It is probably too strong to call Spicer's remarks on Tuesday a breakthrough; he was asked to specify “what it is [Trump is] not pleased with in the legislation that’s being drafted” but refused to do so.
Yet the White House finally provided some on-the-record insight into the president's thinking, after reporters hammered the same subject over several days. It is now clear that Trump is not yet satisfied by his party's plan to overhaul health care.
Briefings from the Trump White House already are getting shorter and rarer. If the president curtails the sessions further, reporters could lose their ability to wear down Trump's spokesmen and slowly squeeze out answers.