Shutters clicked at the White House on Tuesday as observers caught a rare public glimpse of one of Washington’s most fascinating creatures: an appearance by press secretary Sarah Sanders in the press briefing room.
What was once a norm for a presidential administration, trotting out the press secretary to answer various questions on the news of the day, has become, particularly of late, a rarity on President Trump’s watch. Press secretaries used to hold daily briefings in part because it made their jobs easier, allowing them to answer common questions shared by members of the media in one fell swoop, instead of having to answer the same thing over and over. When an administration’s position is that the media is necessarily unhelpful and when the only true authority for representing Trump’s position in any given moment is Trump himself, that becomes somewhat less useful.
We can visualize this. The American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara collects data on press briefings over time. Daily press briefings used to be daily, as shown below. In 2018, the red blocks, that’s become much less the case.
There are some consistent lulls: The August recess, Thanksgiving, the holidays. But 2018 has been, in essence, one big lull, punctuated only occasionally by a Sanders appearance. Since the end of August, Sanders has held press briefings five times. (The chart above shows only briefings held by press secretaries themselves. There have been 12 briefings or gaggles — less formal conversations — held this year by deputies of Sanders.)
After we first wrote about how rarely Sanders steps up to the lectern, the American Presidency Project compiled data to compare the nature of her press briefings to those of her predecessors. Yes, she’s held briefings less frequently (and this is using data only through the end of October) but those briefings have also included fewer questions than most past press secretaries — and more contentious exchanges.
Reinforcing that point about brevity: On Tuesday, the press briefing lasted about 15 minutes. (At the end of that briefing, reporter Andrew Feinberg yelled, “Do your job!”) The most contentious exchanges for a press secretary came under Barack Obama’s final press secretary, Josh Earnest. But, then, he also took about 15 more questions per briefing, on average.
Under Sanders, to be somewhat arch, the daily press briefing has evolved into the monthly press berating. The good news about that contentiousness, though, is that at least the fighting in the briefing room doesn’t last very long — and there’s plenty of time between briefings to recover.