For decades, the White House daily briefing has been a chance for the president and his staff to broadcast a coherent, unified message of the day, signaling their administration’s priorities to Congress, the American people and foreign capitals.
For the Trump White House, however, the briefing devolved this week into a guessing game for a staff struggling to speak on behalf of a president who spends much of his time airing thoughts — on Twitter and in interviews — that directly contradict them.
On Friday, under mounting pressure to square his conflicting rationales for the abrupt firing of James B. Comey as head of the FBI, President Trump appeared to reach a breaking point. In a morning tweet, he declared it was essentially impossible for those charged with speaking for the White House to get things right all the time.
“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Trump wrote on the social media service. In a follow-up message, he suggested doing away with the daily briefings entirely and handing out written statements instead.
“We don’t have press conferences . . . unless I have them every two weeks and I do it myself,” Trump ruminated in an interview with Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News Channel personality, that is set to air Saturday. “I think it’s a good idea. First of all, you have a level of hostility that’s incredible, and it’s very unfair.”
Trump’s frustration with the political fallout from the Comey firing and his inability to control the media narrative reflected a deepening sense of crisis that has enveloped the White House amid its chaotic handling of the affair.
The president — already seething over the ongoing FBI investigation into his campaign’s alleged contacts with Russian government operatives — has been angered further by what he sees as his communication team’s hapless rollout of news of the Comey firing late Tuesday. Surrogates were slow to appear on cable news outlets to defend Trump.
Once his team, which learned of Trump’s decision to oust Comey just an hour before it happened, finally settled on a message — that Trump relied on a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein recommending the firing because of Comey’s handling of an investigation last fall into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server — the president promptly undercut them. Trump told NBC News in an interview that he dismissed Comey because of “this Russia thing,” leading to new accusations from his political rivals that the president had acted to impede the FBI investigation in a coverup that had undertones of Watergate.
“Presidents often think they have a press problem, when in fact what they have is political problems,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential historian who focuses on White House communications. “They are confusing the two. The president is shifting what he has said so many times about why Comey was fired. . . . It’s not a press problem. It’s his own political problems and his shifting views.”
But as Trump scrambled to stanch his political wounds, he may have inadvertently shone a spotlight on a mounting credibility problem for the White House that could pose as significant a threat to his agenda as the outcome of the Russia investigation.
Former White House aides who have served past presidents of both major parties said the daily briefings are watched closely by lawmakers and foreign governments for signals about where the administration stands on the issues of the day and about the president’s state of mind.
If the president himself does not expect his surrogates to be able to accurately reflect that, the former aides asked, how can anyone outside the West Wing?
“They’re sending a message to the world that it can’t believe what the White House says,” said Jennifer Psaki, who served stints as White House communications director and as State Department spokeswoman in the Obama administration. “This week, it is a head-scratching, concerning development. But in a week when there is an inevitable national security emergency, when communications need to happen about troubling events in the world, it becomes an emergency — a dire emergency.”
In the halls of the West Wing, anxiety among the staff has mounted as the president’s mood has darkened, contributing to ever-present rumors of a pending shake-up at the White House lectern. Adding to the uncertainty this week, press secretary Sean Spicer — who struggled to explain Trump’s actions in the immediate aftermath of Comey’s firing late Tuesday — spent two days midweek participating in Navy Reserve service, leaving the cleanup to deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Her performance left more questions than answers about the timeline of Trump’s decision-making process. After insisting Wednesday that Trump had relied on Rosenstein’s advice, she was forced to change her answers after the president said he had already made up his mind to fire Comey before hearing from the deputy attorney general.
Asked by a reporter Thursday whether the president had left her in the dark, she responded: “I know you’d love to report that we were misled. . . . I went off of the information that I had when I answered your question.”
By Friday, Spicer was back in the briefing room, arguing that the real problem is not the conflicting White House statements but rather a press corps that delights in using the administration’s own words to embarrass the president.
The president is “a little dismayed,” Spicer said when asked about Trump’s threat to kill the briefings. “We come out here and try to do everything we can to provide you and the American people with what he’s doing on their behalf, what he’s doing to keep the nation safe, what he’s doing to grow jobs, and yet, we see time and time again an attempt to parse every little word and make it more of a game of ‘gotcha.’ ”
As the briefing progressed, it was clear that the spokesman was striving to be more careful in his answers.
Asked about Trump’s statements in the NBC interview that he had received assurances from Comey on three occasions that he was not directly under investigation by the FBI, Spicer demurred: “I haven’t spoken to him on it about the reason, but I think he answered it yesterday very clearly. And so I can get back to you, but that’s the answer.”
And when a reporter wanted to know why Trump said in a tweet that Comey had better hope there are no “tapes” of their conversations, Spicer again avoided trying to interpret the president’s motives.
“The tweet speaks for itself,” he said. “I’m moving on.”