Where Have All The White House Press Briefings Gone?

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s combative relationship with the media is no secret, and the president’s supporters have happily rallied behind his purported distaste for the Fourth Estate — apparently not caring that, though he tweets angrily about the New York Times, his first call on issues is often to Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

Over at The Atlantic, Rosie Gray describes the erosion of the traditional daily press briefing under Trump:

President Trump himself has publicly mused about canceling them, tweeting “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

But instead of canceling them entirely, the White House has appeared to embrace a different strategy: simply downgrading them bit by bit, from “briefings” to “gaggles,” and from on-camera to off-camera. Guidance for the briefings have begun to include a note that audio from them cannot be used. Additionally, though Trump has held short press conferences when foreign leaders visit, he has not held a full press conference since February.

The White House Press Corps has understandably balked at being told they can’t record audio or video, especially those whose medium is audio or video. CNN’s Jim Acosta, quoted in Gray’s story, tweeted:

Acosta is half-correct here. State- and city-level political reporters do experience this kind of stonewalling, and they do chafe at it. The tactic is also not limited to Republican politicians: in the Democratic haven of New York (both city and state), reporters are constantly frustrated with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s refusal to take off-topic questions, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s refusal to answer any questions at all.

And the Democrats’ great blue hope in the Congressional race in Georgia’s Sixth District reportedly banned the conservative-leaning Free Beacon from attending an event.

Gray’s piece in The Atlantic highlights the rock-and-a-hard-place status of the White House press corps, who seem unsure of how to fight back against a president who doesn’t seem to care whether or not they show up to work — and may even prefer if they don’t. But the inability to record statements from an administration that habitually impugns the media’s character, squawking “Fake News” at any story it dislikes, is troubling.

For an example of why recordings are so important, see former White House ethics lawyer (under George W. Bush) Richard Painter’s response to a Daily Beast story reporting — with audio evidence — that Kellyanne Conway made comments publicly about fighting “demographic wars.”

And of course, there’s fired FBI director James Comey’s recent, memorable response to Trump threatening to release tapes of their conversations: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” NPR has a lengthy look at presidents themselves resorting to taping conversations out of frustration with media representations of their conversations.

For what it’s worth, here’s a tip for our colleagues in Washington, D.C.: It’s pretty easy to surreptitiously use Voice Memos on your iPhone, and the District of Columbia is a one-party consent state when it comes to recording conversations (shout-out to Nixon).

(N.B.: We’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight that Gray asked Steve Bannon for an explanation for the off-camera press briefings, and he texted back, “Sean got fatter,” proving that Luke Mazur’s depiction of Bannon in his foe fiction for The Awl is spot-on.)