Thursday was a big day in Washington, as Senate Republicans introduced the health-care bill they had been crafting behind closed doors and President Trump tweeted that he does not possess recordings of his conversations with former FBI director James B. Comey after all.
It was the kind of day when voters might expect to see a White House spokesman answer questions from reporters. Yet the White House conducted Thursday's news briefing off camera and barred news outlets from even airing live audio, limiting public access to the session.
Press secretary Sean Spicer has said that the purpose of banning TV cameras from select briefings is to promote “a more substantive discussion about actual issues.” He told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham in an interview Wednesday that going off-camera cuts down on showboating by reporters who “want to become YouTube stars and ask some snarky question that's been asked eight times.”
But the timing of Thursday's prohibition on live broadcasts — and of previous bans — suggests another motivation: ducking the spotlight in key moments.
Dates of past off-camera briefings include:
- Feb. 24, after an address by Trump to the Conservative Political Action Conference in which he railed against the “fake news media.” What's more, Spicer excluded journalists from outlets that the president lumps into the “fake news” category, such as CNN and the New York Times, thus avoiding questions from reporters whom Trump had just attacked.
- March 6, the first weekday after Trump tweeted an unsubstantiated accusation that President Barack Obama had tapped the phone lines at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign.
- April 7, the day after Trump ordered a military strike on a Syrian airfield.
- May 9, the day Trump fired Comey. Spicer memorably spent several minutes conferring with another press aide among the bushes outside the White House before insisting on answering questions in the dark of night, without being filmed.
- May 31, the day after Spicer had argued on camera with reporters about fake news and the same day that Trump set Twitter on fire with “covfefe.”
- June 19, the day after a U.S. fighter jet downed a Syrian warplane, prompting Russia, a Syrian ally, to warn that it will treat American aircraft as targets if they fly in Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River while Russian forces are on combat missions.
Spicer's claim to a noble purpose — “You can actually focus on the substance of the issues,” he told Ingraham — seems highly questionable when you consider the circumstances surrounding these off-camera briefings.
Thursday's Q&A with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was just the latest example of White House spokespeople dodging cameras on big news days.