The Pentagon on Friday marked a year without regularly scheduled press briefings, underscoring what journalists and former officials have described as a decline in transparency and public engagement at a time when the military faces growing threats from China, Russia and Iran.
The halt to what for years had been at least weekly televised briefings by a department press secretary, along with a reduction in other media engagements, reflects a broader chill in news organizations’ dealings with the Trump administration, which has depicted the press as an adversary. President Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, has given formal briefings in the White House briefing room only twice this year, while the State Department this week resumed televised press briefings after an on-and-off hiatus.
Dana White, who served as the department’s press secretary under former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, gave her final televised briefing on May 31, 2018. Since then, some of the few individuals who have appeared on the Pentagon podium have included actor Gerard Butler — who was promoting a submarine movie — and Kiss singer Gene Simmons.
The curtailment began under Mattis, a retired Marine general who sought to avoid being seen disagreeing with the president, an avid consumer of television news. Mattis departed the Pentagon in late December over differences with Trump. White also resigned.
So far this year, there have been only a handful of on-camera briefings. No combatant commanders have answered questions from the Pentagon press corps, nor have the uniformed or civilian military service leaders. Neither of the commanders of the military’s two most active operations — Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who heads U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, and Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, who commands U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria — have conducted briefings since taking command.
“The long absence in the Pentagon Briefing Room has deprived journalists of an important part of that access and has removed opportunities to compel officials to answer for decisions they make on behalf of the American people,” said Robert Burns, a veteran Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press who is the president of the Pentagon Press Association. “We are hopeful that this will change soon,” he said in a statement.
Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan has conducted off-camera briefings at the Pentagon and taken questions from reporters on the road but has not done any on-camera briefings since taking over at the beginning of the year. White’s successor was put in place only in the past few weeks. But Jonathan Hoffman, who came to the Pentagon from the Department of Homeland Security, has not yet given a briefing and it’s unclear if he plans to do so.
For years, the televised press secretary briefings were supplemented by regular off-camera media “gaggles” by a senior uniformed spokesman, who could field reporters’ questions about military operations and other news of the day. Those became less frequent in 2018 until they stopped altogether. It is not clear whether they will resume.
The department has also stopped providing the news media what used to be routine information, including approximate numbers of troops stationed in foreign countries.
The trend has made for confusion at moments of intense scrutiny, including when Trump in December announced what appeared to be an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria — a decision that was interpreted differently by officials at the time and has since been walked back. It also allowed for speculation about an imminent conflict with Iran when the White House, in a terse Sunday-night statement, announced it would send additional troops and weaponry to the Middle East because of increased threats from Tehran.
David Lapan, who served as a Pentagon spokesman under Republican and Democratic secretaries and as a Department of Homeland Security spokesman under Trump, said regular on-the-record briefings by spokesmen and other officials provided valuable information to troops’ families and other taxpayers.
“The people who send us their family members to do the nation’s bidding need to hear from senior leaders about how the military is being employed,” he said. Such briefings also serve as an important way for rank-and-file service members to hear from their leaders about the missions in which they’re involved, he said.
Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Pentagon was “committed to transparency to the media and the public.” He said the department had “facilitated numerous on- and off-camera press engagements on a variety of topics, in addition to written press statements, social media posts, and other products made available on defense.gov.”
He noted that credentialed journalists are free to roam much of the Pentagon as well as Shanahan’s decision to invite journalists to accompany him on trips overseas. While the Pentagon has restricted media access to those trips since Trump took office, officials serving under Shanahan have taken steps to restore at least some of that access.
Crosson also said that military press officers are available “24/7” to answer reporters’ questions. But lower-ranking spokesmen often do not have swift access to a full range of information and are typically unable to comment on sensitive matters.
John Wagner contributed to this report.