President Trump has ordered members of his administration to stay away from the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on Saturday night. He’ll be doing a rally in Green Bay, Wis., instead. Perhaps the WHCA’s decision to ditch edgy comedy — after emcee Michelle Wolf outraged many Beltway types last year, particularly White House press secretary Sarah Sanders — in favor of civics (this year’s act is an author/historian type) didn’t do the trick. Oh, well.
Now on to a WHCA story that matters somewhat more: On Tuesday, the White House set a new record of 43 days without a White House press briefing — an institution that was once known as a “daily” event. In the early days of the Trump administration, these sessions were frequent, much to the delight of the top-three cable news networks. Whether it was Trump’s first press secretary Sean Spicer embarrassing himself at the lectern, or his successor, Sanders, rushing toward the exit, White House reporters at least had a chance to get some on-the-record material — even if that material was shot through with falsehoods.
Now the White House press pools scramble to catch Trump at one of his numerous “pool sprays” — question-and-answer opportunities either at ceremonial events or en route to Marine One. Another popular option is to track Sanders on her way back into the White House from an interview with “Fox & Friends” on the White House grounds.
Olivier Knox, president of the WHCA, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he continues raising the absence of briefings with Sanders, petitioning for a return to the cadence of years past. And that’s about all that Knox can do — ask. When we asked him whether there was another level of pressure that the WHCA could apply, he replied, “Not really, not as long as this is the president’s preferred approach.”
That, it is. The idea that the best spokesperson for Trump is Trump himself has a long history among the president’s aides. And who can blame them for not wanting to go before the media and defend the indefensible?
Before Sanders & Co. began to essentially boycott the briefings, numerous critics had encouraged media outlets to boycott the briefings themselves. Last week’s release of the Mueller report, however, revealed why they’re so crucial even when they feel useless. Mueller’s people had quizzed Sanders under oath about her claim during one briefing that “countless” FBI employees had supported Trump’s May 2017 firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey. That was a “slip of the tongue,” Sanders told Team Mueller. From the report: “She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made ‘in the heat of the moment’ that was not founded on anything.”
Consider: Mueller wouldn’t have been able to corner Sanders on this matter if her remarks hadn’t been on the record.
There are many reasons for the briefings, as Knox explains. Certain WHCA members, he explains, have complained that the disappearance of the briefings allows much less opportunity for asking certain types of questions. “People are not basically getting the material they need,” he says, specifying that technical and policy matters aren’t getting addressed under the current setup. Under previous administrations, said Knox, policy questions at the White House briefings didn’t always fetch full and detailed responses from press representatives. But in many cases, the inquiry alone would draw interest from relevant officials in the federal bureaucracy. “That’s another positive for in favor of the briefing -- it has the ability to mobilize people in government to provide those answers,” says Knox, SiriusXM’s chief Washington correspondent.
Nor is the problem restricted to White House briefings, emphasizes Knox: There’s been a falloff in Pentagon and State Department briefings, as well as certain info-sharing policies.
The Erik Wemple Blog asked Sanders about the disappearing briefings; we will update the post if we receive an answer. Knox refrained from characterizing the reaction of White House officials to his pleas for more briefings. “They’ve heard my concerns,” he says.