Press secretary Sarah Sanders last walked up to the lectern in the White House press briefing room on Oct. 3 after a 23-day drought. Before that, there had been an 18-day stretch with no briefing.
Early in the Trump administration, the regular White House press briefings were must-see TV, getting big ratings for the sparring between press secretary and press. In recent months, though, the briefings have shrunk away to the point where calling them “daily” would be a severe misnomer.
“It’s an important forum for the public, and we shouldn’t let it go,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project and a political scientist who for years has sat in on the White House briefings.
The number of briefings began declining in the spring, falling below levels of the last two administrations at the same point in their presidencies. It dropped precipitously in the past two months.
The briefings have also gotten shorter. In the past six months, they’ve been about 25 percent shorter on average than in the first year of the Trump administration. And Trump administration briefings were already shorter on average than those in the Bush and Obama administrations.
Meanwhile, in recent days President Trump has been speaking for himself, a lot. For instance on Thursday, he took questions from reporters at two different bill signings and held court in the Oval Office with rapper Kanye West as members of the press pool tossed out questions.
Twice in the past week, Trump has brought reporters to the front of Air Force One to chat and answer questions, and he’s called into Fox News three times. These exchanges haven’t involved in-depth discussions of policy. Rather, they’ve been heavy on politics and breezy commentary on news of the day.
Kumar, who tracks presidential interactions with the press, says if you combine press conferences and these more incidental interactions, Trump has personally taken questions more frequently than former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush at the same point in their presidencies (Bill Clinton has Trump beat, however). In less than 10 months in 2018, Trump has already surpassed his total from 2017, she says.
“President Trump thinks like he’s his own press secretary and he’s the one that ought to be the spokesman every day, and I’m not even sure he likes the idea he’s got someone called the spokesman or a press secretary,” says Mike McCurry, who was press secretary for Clinton.
McCurry was Clinton’s spokeman during the Ken Starr investigation and other challenging news cycles.
“There were many times where I would have been happy to just throw my briefing book against the wall and say, ‘Let’s just go out and party,’ ” says McCurry.
But he didn’t. Instead he showed up in the briefing room and fielded the incoming. “I just felt like it was a responsibility, and … sort of a democratic duty in a way,” McCurry adds.
No one from the Trump White House would go on the record for this story, and Sanders hasn’t been to the lectern in eight days, so there hasn’t been a chance to ask in the briefing. But in an interview that got just as testy as some of his briefings, former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer defends the current White House.
“The idea that the briefing is the be all and end all and the standard bearer for the degree of accessibility is rather silly in this age,” says Spicer, arguing the press staff answers questions by email and in person and issues statements via Twitter or the press pool.
And as the president keeps taking questions in informal settings known as “pool sprays,” Spicer says Sanders is trying to let Trump be his own messenger most days.
Spicer says that when the briefing became a ratings sensation in the Trump administration, its utility decreased. He says on the cable networks it got ridiculous with live shots of an empty podium in the corner of the screen hours before the scheduled start time.
“The dynamic and the purpose of the briefing has shifted from reporters using it to gather information to reporters using it to further their own personal careers and name recognition,” says Spicer.
Before the start of the Trump administration, former press secretaries McCurry and Ari Fleischer argued in the Columbia Journalism Review that to lower the temperature, the briefing should no longer be a live televised event.
“The briefing today has become an occasion for too much posturing on both sides of the camera. The president’s spokesman should and must be available for questioning, especially on those days when the president’s schedule does not include a public appearance.
“But a simple change could make a difference. If the briefing is ’embargoed’ until its conclusion, it will become just one of several raw ingredients that journalists can use to prepare their reports on the work of the president and the White House. It would instantly become a toned-down briefing, and reporters would use the information from the briefing and test it against other sources as they prepare coverage.”
That idea met a lot of resistance from the press corps and didn’t happen. Fleischer, who was press secretary for George W. Bush now bemoans the state of the briefing.
“The good government, on-paper side of me says of course there should be a regular briefing,” says Fleischer. “The realist watching the hostility between the Trump White House and the press corps in both directions says what’s the point of the briefing? There’s no news. It’s just hostility.”
You don’t have to watch the briefings long to see the hostility on display.
Still, Dana Perino, who also served as press secretary for George W. Bush, says regular briefings have value. The press secretary isn’t just speaking to the press. She is speaking to the whole world.
“It is a mutually beneficial thing for a daily briefing to take place,” says Perino, who now hosts a show on Fox News called — wait for it — The Daily Briefing.
Mutually beneficial, she says, because taking questions forces the administration to hone it policy and message. It’s a kind of accountability Perino says she welcomed.
“Internally, when the Cabinet or the staff knows that the press secretary has to go out and answer questions from the press, it can force decision making or consensus,” she says.
The question “How am I going to explain this to the press?” can be a powerful motivator.