You may have heard that President Trump on Thursday denied any knowledge that former campaign chairman Paul Manafort shared polling data with suspected former Russian intelligence officer. You may have heard that he told Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) last month that he would take ownership of a government shutdown. And you may have heard that he attacked CNN reporter Abby Phillip in November for asking a “a stupid question," in response to a smart question.
These occasions all have one thing in common: They stemmed from sessions at which White House reporters clustered to pepper the president with questions, hoping to break a bit of news. And, boy, did they ever. Trump’s impromptu comments at various spots in and around the White House — and on the road — continue to drive a steroidal political news cycle.
Now for some numbers to quantify Trump’s news output and general accessibility as president. According to Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project and emeritus professor at Towson University, Trump has racked up 338 “short question-and-answer” sessions over his time in office, which hits the two-year mark on Jan. 20. Compare that to 75 for President Barack Obama over his full first two years in office, and 243 for President George W. Bush. “I think that it’s always good to have the opportunity to ask questions of the president,” says Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents' Association. “It doesn’t replace the usefulness of a regular or daily briefing, which can serve to clear out what I call the underbrush of news" — such as scheduling and logistical stuff.
Sample the chart below, which comes from Kumar’s research:
Trump [as of Jan. 10]
George W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
One detail on timelines: As noted in the chart, Trump’s numbers extend through Jan. 10, whereas the numbers for his predecessors extend all the way through the first two years of their first term (Jan. 20). Meaning: If Trump can average around seven Q-and-A sessions over the next nine days, he could eclipse President Bill Clinton’s prodigious question-and-answer output between 1993 and 1995.
Stranger things have happened in this White House.
If Trump cares about overtaking Clinton in this critical category, he has a good shot, according to Kumar. Following the installation of Michael McCurry as press secretary at the beginning of 1995, says Kumar, the Clinton team became more disciplined in its media interactions. As a result, the number of short Q-and-A sessions by the president trailed off over subsequent years.
The tallies say a lot about the personalities of the presidents. While Obama, for example, disdained the freewheeling nature of the short question-and-answer sessions — known as “pool sprays” among the White House press corps — he enjoyed one-on-one interviews, where he could speak extensively on his initiatives. “He did that even in the press conferences,” says Kumar. “He liked to dig down into policy.”
Consider this, too: The decision to engage the media in Q-and-A banter is entirely discretionary, yet Trump does it incessantly. Perhaps these frequent decisions to spend time with the people he constantly disparages on Twitter says something about the sincerity of those attacks. Two of the entries in Kumar’s tally of Trump’s pool sprays include times when he approached the media with questions or comments. During his December 2017 vacation in Florida, for example, Trump asked media poolers, "How’s the media? Good? Everyone good? . . . How’s your 401(k)? Doing pretty well? Doing well, right?” he asked, according to a pool report by The Post’s Ashley Parker. “They’re all doing well. The 401(k)s are doing well, the stocks are doing well.”
The president appears to enjoy the back-and-forth so much that he is threatening to blow up the nomenclature of Kumar’s chart — some of these “short Q-and-A’s” are turning into extended sessions. For example, Trump appeared in the Rose Garden on Jan. 4 with other officials to make some remarks on the government shutdown. The prepared remarks lasted for about 25 minutes, and then Trump took questions from the media for another 35 minutes or so. For Kumar’s purposes, the session could well qualify as a full-fledged news conference. “It’s right on the line,” she says.
So Trump is extremely accessible. But is he transparent? Well, that would require that he stop lying and start providing more information to the public.