It has now been more than two months since presidential press secretary Sarah Sanders has held a scheduled, on-the-record briefing for White House reporters.
Briefings had been a near-daily event in recent presidencies, going back to when Richard M. Nixon converted the West Wing swimming pool into a room to be used specifically for such gatherings. For nearly as long, those on both sides of the lectern have found it a frequently maddening exercise — particularly after Bill Clinton’s spokesman Mike McCurry in 1995 allowed his briefings to be televised, a decision he later regretted.
All too often, what viewers across the country saw was grandstanding on the part of journalists, and deflection — or flat-out deception — by whoever was behind the microphone. In the first year and a half of the Trump era, the briefing room was a battle zone, where dissembling by the White House became so intense, it sparked talk that reporters should boycott.
The briefings got shorter and shorter. And then, sometime around last summer, they began disappearing from the schedule entirely. The same has been true at the Pentagon and the State Department, where top officials are no doubt relieved they don’t have to pretend they know or understand policies that are subject to reversal with a presidential tweet.
In place of regular sessions with White House officials, reporters have been reduced to chasing Sanders and others for comment on the White House driveway, or throwing questions at the president himself in chaotic settings, such as photo ops, where there is little opportunity for follow-up.
All of this is bad for our democracy. The daily briefing, whatever its flaws, provided a ritualized means of holding power accountable. The daily to-and-fro was also an equalizer, where smaller news organizations and specialty outlets had an opportunity to raise questions they could not get answered through phone calls or emails to a press operation that frequently ignores all but the big dogs on the beat.
And there is another, less obvious benefit: Knowing that the White House will have to answer questions in a regular, public forum forces important discussions among decision-makers. They know they are likely to be exposed and embarrassed if they try to wing it on the details. As McCurry told me: “With sharper and clearer answers, you get sharper and clearer policy.”
While it is probably too much to hope that this White House will revive the tradition of regular and predictable media access, there is also a danger that whoever comes next might do as President Trump has done. That’s what happens when a norm ceases to be a norm.
Just about every administration, given the option, will try to hold the media at a distance. Shortly after her husband was inaugurated in 1993, then-first lady Hillary Clinton proposed booting reporters to the Old Executive Office Building and reclaiming the old swimming pool that Nixon had given up. It was an idea she got from her predecessor, Barbara Bush, who advised the incoming administration to show the press who’s boss right from the start, according to a memoir by then-White House aide George Stephanopoulos.
Rather than assuming another president would recognize the vital function of the White House press briefing, I asked the campaigns of each of the 22 current contenders for the Democratic nomination: If their candidate is elected, will he or she require their press secretary to schedule on-the-record briefings for the White House media at least once a week?
So far, I’ve heard back from 15 of them. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) agreed they would do that as a minimum.
The remaining eight — former vice president Joe Biden, former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.), former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) — said they would go further. They all replied that once a week is not enough and committed to reinstating the tradition of daily media briefings.
There surely are ways to make the sessions better. For instance, the briefing-room seating arrangement should be rotated so that big, legacy news organizations are not planted near the front, where they can dominate the questioning. But the Trump White House’s decision to all but do away with regular briefings sets an unacceptable precedent. It is in the interest of the country — and of the president himself — to bring them back.