- The Washington Times
Thursday, December 27, 2018

We have come to bury the White House daily press briefing, not necessarily to praise it.

Under the highly accessible President Trump, televised media briefings by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the once-crowded White House press room have dwindled almost out of existence.

After adhering to the traditional five-briefings-per-week schedule early in the administration, the White House started cutting back noticeably on the often-raucous exercises last summer. By August, only a handful of televised question-and-answer sessions were held per month.

In October, there was one briefing.

On Nov. 20, when a live Thanksgiving turkey awaiting a presidential pardon wandered into the White House press room, a journalist joked that the turkey had made more appearances at the press secretary’s podium in November than Mrs. Sanders had. She held her only briefing of the month on Nov. 27.

The one televised briefing in December lasted a brief 15 minutes.

Mrs. Sanders said she has scaled back the number of these sessions because Mr. Trump “loves to engage directly a lot more with the press.” According to her tally, the president in the past two months has answered “700 times more questions from the media than his predecessors during that same period of time.”

“I always think that it’s to the benefit of everybody in this country when they can hear directly from the president versus a spokesperson,” Mrs. Sanders said at a forum hosted by Politico this month. “On the days when we can have the president have that back and forth and answer questions from the media, I think that’s far more important than them hearing from me.”

Some journalists say the White House is eliminating the press secretary’s briefings to stop the spectacle of reporters shouting at Mrs. Sanders on television in sessions that frequently turn hostile.

As Mrs. Sanders called an abrupt halt to her Dec. 19 briefing, Breakfast Media’s Andrew Feinberg shouted, “Do your job, Sarah!”

Mr. Feinberg, whom the president called on in November at his last formal news conference, posted on Twitter that Mrs. Sanders “does not respond to emails, she does not meet with (most) reporters.”

Some White House reporters say such on-camera displays of anger are having a backlash with the White House press office.

The televised briefings “went away because she doesn’t want to be yelled at,” said a veteran White House reporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “She thinks [reporters] should not be screaming. I agree with her on that. I don’t think the answer is not having any briefings. The more you have them, and the longer they are, and the more questions you answer, means people aren’t going to be so frantic. The answer is more access, not less.”

The White House also has held an increasing number of conference-call briefings with journalists on specific subjects, such as the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, the impact of tax cuts on the economy and a preview of the administration’s plan to prevent school shootings.

Mr. Trump has given the media unprecedented access on days when he feels like talking, which is often. He has been known to give several interviews a day in addition to taking questions for 15 minutes or more from the pack of press reporters on the South Lawn before he boards the presidential helicopter.

S. Robert Lichter, professor of communications at George Mason University and director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said White House press briefings have been a “strange beast” for decades.

“Reporters have always criticized the press briefings for not being really informative, for being one step from propaganda,” Mr. Lichter said. “To some degree, it’s outlived its usefulness. There are so many opportunities for the president to get his message out.”

Mr. Trump also has opened up to the media White House meetings that traditionally would have been kept private. An example was his contentious Oval Office meeting Dec. 11 with incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer.

Both Democrats urged the president on camera several times to kick out the press so they could negotiate a spending bill. Mr. Trump kept the press in the room as he lobbied for border wall funding and threatened a government shutdown.

“I love the way that the president operates,” Mrs. Sanders said at the forum. “I love that he brought the press in and allowed America to see both sides of the aisle, and where both Democrats and Republicans stand on that issue, and see some of that negotiation play out in real time. I think it’s important for America to have that type of transparency. That’s one of the reasons I think that the president has continued to be popular.”

But relying on the president to be his own spokesman also can lead to relative radio silence on days when Mr. Trump doesn’t feel like talking. One such day was Dec. 12, when the president’s former attorney Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in federal prison for making illegal hush-money payments before the 2016 election to two women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump.

The president held one public event at the White House that day: signing an executive order to help distressed communities through “opportunity zone” tax breaks. He ignored reporters’ shouted questions about Cohen and left the room.

Journalists who cover the White House say regular press briefings give them the opportunity to ask questions about scheduling and behind-the-scenes operations that they wouldn’t ask of the president over the screech of helicopter engines.

“One of my favorite things is, she’ll actually tell reporters when something on Twitter [from the president] is a directive or it’s just him venting,” the veteran reporter said of Mrs. Sanders. “If she chooses, she can decipher that or explain him. We can ask her questions that we would never ask the president in a 10-minute [appearance] where everybody’s screaming.”

Regardless, Mrs. Sanders said, Mr. Trump is the most media-accessible president in history.

“He’s done more interviews than any president has,” she said. “The amount of access that this White House has given to the press is unprecedented. That’s certainly a positive thing and should be celebrated, not picked apart because we’re doing it in a different way than it has been done before.”

When Sean Spicer was Mr. Trump’s press secretary, the daily press briefings were often combative. Mr. Trump at first enjoyed the popularity of Mr. Spicer’s televised briefings but eventually soured on the parade of hostile questions to the point that the White House stopped televising them.

When Mrs. Sanders took over in the summer of 2017, she managed to lower the temperature of the briefings and sometimes shut down reporters by allowing them only one question. But the general tenor of the media’s questions again seemed to turn more hostile in the late spring as reporters raised persistently accusatory questions about the administration’s policy of separating illegal migrant families at the southern border.

Some TV reporters rankled the White House by engaging in what the president and his aides said was grandstanding and posturing for the cameras to make Mr. Trump look bad. By the end of the summer, the frequency of Mrs. Sanders’ televised press briefings was down to one per week or less.

Mr. Lichter said eliminating press briefings also reduces the chances of Mrs. Sanders getting caught in a contradiction with the president, who sometimes posts unexpected tweets that his staff doesn’t know are coming and can’t elaborate on.

“Every president has his own relationship both with reporters and with his staff,” he said. “For Donald Trump, he never makes it easy for his press secretary. You’ve got to be careful not to tell the press anything you think is false, but also not to say something that’s going to make the boss mad.”

He said the job of White House press secretary is difficult no matter who is president because the staffer is “serving two masters” — the president and the press.

“In the past, it did establish a sense of trust between reporters who wanted to find out what was going on and the White House that wanted to inform them — sometimes mislead, but usually not blatantly lie,” he said.

Mrs. Sanders, who said she has no plans to leave the White House, said she hopes her legacy will be one of “honesty and transparency.”

“I hope that it will be that I showed up every day and I did the very best job that I could to put forward the president’s message,” she said, adding that she has tried “to do the best job that I could to answer questions.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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