WASHINGTON — The Trump White House has dropped an event that used to be a prized invite for journalists and their families in D.C.: A holiday party for the media.
But another tradition has been disappearing from the West Wing agenda as well: the daily press briefing.
The regular televised afternoon back and forth between the press corps and the press secretary can no longer even be called “daily.” “Monthly” is more apt. The last one that was held was on Nov. 27, the only one held that month. Only two were held in October, and just one in September.
The public may not even notice all that much, as President Trump takes questions from reporters frequently, during so-called “pool sprays” in the Oval Office and other parts of the White House, or before he boards the presidential helicopter Marine One on the South Lawn.
This week, the White House allowed cameras into Trump’s meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, making for some remarkable, reality-show like moments in which they debated over border wall funding and who will take the blame if the government shuts down over the issue.
Asked about the lack of press briefings, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an email to Variety that “we have one of the most accessible administrations and Presidents in modern history. President Trump regularly engages with the media and any time the American people can hear directly from him that’s a great thing.”
Many reporters may agree, but also argue that the daily press briefing is something different than interaction with the President.
Olivier Knox, the president of the White House Correspondents Association and SiriusXM’s chief Washington correspondent, said “while the President has made himself frequently available to take questions, which we welcome, that doesn’t make regular White House briefings useless.
“Briefings are good for clearing what I might call the underbrush of news — ‘Is that lunch with a senator still on? Can you explain this contradiction in administration policy? Can you walk us step-by-step through (for example) the process for repatriating and identifying American remains from North Korea?'”
He also said the briefings can “really benefit smaller outlets that don’t staff the White House full-time. If you’re in a bureau of two or three, knowing a set time to head to the White House is very helpful.”
Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University and former Washington bureau chief for CNN, says “there is just an immense amount of information that goes through the White House. It is just a constant and unending news flow. Having that access to the press secretary on matters of policy importance and logistical relevance…that is just gigantically valuable.”
The briefings during the Trump era, though, are more “exercises in futility,” he said, a function of the desire by the President to handle his own messaging and the “open contempt” that the White House has for the press.
“If [the Trump administration] is picking fights with the media and some members of the media are grandstanding, then call a waste a waste and stop pretending,” he added.
Cable news networks aired the briefing live at various times during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies, depending on the day’s news, but they took on a kind of must-see status during the early days of the Trump administration.
Then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s confrontations with reporters became the basis for “Saturday Night Live” skits, and clips of actual moments during the briefings quickly became social media memes. Spicer recently told NPR that the purpose of the briefing shifted from information gathering “to reporters using it to further their own personal careers and name recognition.”
Sanders, too, has had confrontations with reporters, most famously CNN’s Jim Acosta, and correspondents have been quick to pounce on statements as factually inaccurate, false, or administration spin. Earlier this year, it became clearer to White House correspondents that the briefings were getting shorter and, over the summer, more infrequent.
According to the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Sanders has held briefings less frequently that any predecessor since at least President Bill Clinton’s administration. At the same time, Trump has been taking questions more often from reporters, according to a report from NPR.
Mike McCurry, press secretary under Clinton, said in an email that “in the past, any White House reporter would have dreamed about waking to up to see the President’s inner most thoughts available … in whatever form, tweet or otherwise. And since this president is his own press secretary, I am not sure anyone wants to go out to do a ‘briefing’ that might be overturned by the next tweet.”
He said what is lost by not having the briefing is “someone standing before the media…the surrogates for the American public…and being asked questions about American policies, the White House and its staff, and whatever else the President is up to.”
He said when he was press secretary, he would prep by gathering information from across the federal government, and after the briefing, it would get distributed to public affairs officials at various agencies to use as talking points.
“In short, getting ready for a daily briefing was a big part of getting the government to meet its obligation to keep the public informed; to recognize there is a public right to know. That ethic, sadly, has now disappeared.”
McCurry has said one of his regrets was opening up the daily briefing to TV cameras, as it changed the tenor to more of an “entertainment” opportunity for the cable news audience. He’s suggested restricting it from live TV “to make it more of a working session with less posturing on both sides of the podium.” Video would still be allowed, but it would be embargoed until the briefing is over.
In an appearance with McCurry in February, Sanders said she thought that the briefings were still a “useful tool,” but “a lot of the time the theatrics of it take away from the news component.”
“A lot of the times we have topics that make for better TV than they do for informing the policy and the substance of what is actually taking place at the White House,” she said.
That has also been a complaint of press secretaries of the recent past: The White House is anxious to set the agenda with its message, but the press corps is fixated on the breaking news of the day. And under Trump, that breaking news seems to come every hour.
In her most recent briefing, she has brought in figures like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Larry Kudlow, the President’s top economic adviser, to talk about Trump’s upcoming trip to the G20 summit. When they finished, the pressing questions from the White House press corps had to do with Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation.
That isn’t going away any time soon, and Sesno suggests that could have to do with why the White House briefing is fading away.
“These briefings get really ugly during a scandal, and the White House has a full-blown scandal on its hands,” he said. “I don’t know, but it could be another calculation on the part of the White House. Why go out there and get beat up every day when you can try to handle it from the comfort of your keyboard and a tweet storm?”