Cameras snap, laptops click, recorders flip on and reporters lean forward. On one side, the White House Press Secretary; on the other, the media — gladiators of free speech or mad dogs out for blood, depending how you see them. The great American press briefing is an ecosystem with its own traditions and its own inscrutable rules that has survived, in one form or another, for more than a hundred years. Under the Trump administration, the White House press briefing may not survive the summer.
It’s easy to forget that the the modern press briefing — in which a member of the government routinely meets with select members of the press — is a relatively new custom in the history of the presidency. It’s also easy to forget its informality has always been an illusion.
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:
Call me old fashioned but I think the White House of the United States of America should have the backbone to answer questions on camera.
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.
Reporters can't ask Cuomo questions, but I'd ask what he thinks is fair to give subway riders on diverted trains
Gray’s piece in TheAtlantic 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.
With the White House refusing to let reporters record briefings, everything gets reduced to "he said/she said." Everything becomes deniable. https://t.co/8Pzb776Yz5
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 Beaststory 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).
One senior White House official recently outlined the three rules of Trump for a group of reporters: When you’re right, you fight. Controversy elevates message. And never apologize. All of these rules have survived his time in office, if in slightly more modest forms. After bringing new levels of combativeness to the political process, “the only way you survive is to be combative,” Trump says now. “I’ll read stories in the New York Times that are so one-sided. Hey, I know when I am successful. I know victory.”
But that is not all he has to say. Before the dinner breaks up, the President begins to muse about an alternative world to the one he has helped create. “It never made sense to me, the level of animosity,” Trump says. “All you want to do is, like, Let’s have a great military. Let’s have low taxes. Let’s have good health care. Let’s have good education.”
For a moment, he seems to be proposing a more civil public space in American democracy, one the Trump campaign did little to foster and which the Trump Administration is unlikely to experience.
Is this real introspection or just more performance for his guests? The answer isn’t long in coming. Within a day of the plates being cleared away, Trump takes to Twitter to attack “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” the Democratic Senate leader. He belittles Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal for once misrepresenting his military service—“he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness.”
No truce is around the corner. President Trump fights on.
By most standards, Spicer’s statement Saturday did not go well. He appeared tired and nervous in an ill-fitting gray pinstripe suit. He publicly gave faulty facts and figures — which he said were provided to him by the Presidential Inaugural Committee — that prompted a new round of media scrutiny.
Many critics thought Spicer went too far and compromised his integrity. But in Trump’s mind, Spicer’s attack on the news media was not forceful enough. The president was also bothered that the spokesman read, at times haltingly, from a printed statement.
Trump has been resentful, even furious, at what he views as the media’s failure to reflect the magnitude of his achievements, and he feels demoralized that the public’s perception of his presidency so far does not necessarily align with his own sense of accomplishment.
This story in the Washington Post — based on interviews with almost a dozen senior White House officials and and Trump advisors — paints a picture of an uneasy administration trying to stay in orbit around its hyper-sensitive leader and his insider cabal.
President Obama was the first to come up with a deliberate and explicit practice of 10 letters every day. If the president was home at the White House (he did not tend to mail when he traveled), he would be reading constituent mail, and everyone knew it, and systems were put in place to make sure it happened. The mail had currency. Some staff members called it “the letter underground.” Starting in 2010, all hard mail would be scanned and preserved. Starting in 2011, every email every day would be used to create a word cloud, its image distributed around the White House so policy makers and staff members alike could get a glimpse at what everyday Americans were writing in to say.
Curating the 10LADs was a job she regarded as sacrosanct. She thought of it as a daily conversation with the president, each package an array of voices she believed most accurately rendered America’s mood: Here’s what America is feeling, Mr. President. “Sometimes I think of it as a tray passing under a door,” she said.
A look at hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, and what they reveal about the president’s decision-making process:
One Cabinet official made it clear that she did not share the President’s growing commitment to coupon-clipping: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She rejected the White House’s budget for her department, and wrote the President a six-page letter detailing her complaints. Some in the White House saw the long letter as a weapon, something that could be leaked if Clinton didn’t get her way. ‘At the proposed funding levels,’ Clinton wrote, ‘we will not have the capacity to deliver either the full level of civilian staffing or the foreign assistance programs that underlie the civilian-military strategy you outlined for Afghanistan; nor the transition from U.S. Military to civilian programming in Iraq; nor the expanded assistance that is central to our Pakistan strategy.’