In Trump era, death of the White House press conference
Washington – The presidential news conference, a time-honored tradition going back generations, appears to be no longer.
More than a year has passed since President Donald Trump held the only solo news conference of his administration – a rollicking, hastily arranged, 77-minute free-for-all during which he railed against the media, defended his fired national security adviser and insisted nobody who advised his campaign had had contacts with Russia.
But there are no signs the White House press shop is interested in a second go-round. Instead, the president engages the press in more informal settings that aides say offer reporters far more access, more often, than past administrations.
“President Trump is more accessible than most modern presidents and frequently takes questions from the press,” says White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The president often answers shouted questions at so-called pool sprays, in which a small group of rotating reporters is given access to events such as bill signings and Cabinet lunches. Trump has also taken to answering shouted questions on the White House lawn as he arrives at and departs the White House.
The frenzied exchanges – frequently taking place over the roar of Marine One’s rotor – often produce news.
But the format also gives the president far more control than he would have during a traditional question-and-answer session. Trump can easily ignore questions he doesn’t like and dodge follow-ups in a way that would be glaring in a traditional news conference.
On Friday, for instance, Trump answered several questions in the Oval Office about North Korea and Iran. But when a reporter asked about his threats regarding intervening in the Justice Department, Trump responded with a curt “thank you” that signaled to reporters that he was done with the Q&A session.
The president also holds joint news conferences with visiting world leaders, a format reporters call “two and two” because each leader selects two of its country’s reporters to ask questions. While the format looks similar to a solo news conference, the president more often than not calls on friendly reporters from conservative outlets and limits the opportunity for follow-up questions.
On Friday, during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump called on reporters from Fox Business Network and the Christian Broadcasting Network. Fox News correspondent John Roberts has been called on so often that Trump once picked him and then changed his mind. “Actually, we’ll go somebody else this time, John. You’ve been doing enough, John,” he said to laughs.
Trump also submits to occasional one-on-one interviews with individual news outlets. Last week, he called in to “Fox & Friends,” his favored format during the campaign. And several times he has held longer, impromptu question-and-answer sessions, including one in the Rose Garden with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that, for reporters, had the feel of a mosh pit.
Margaret Talev, a longtime White House reporter and president of the White House Correspondents Association, said the association welcomes Trump’s “openness to engage on a regular basis, in pool sprays in the Oval Office and less traditional settings such as South Lawn departures.”
But, she said, “We have been disappointed at his reluctance to engage in regular full-format news conferences and we will continue to encourage him and his team to return to the practice. Such news conferences help the public to gain a deeper understanding of a president’s thinking on an issue; show transparency and accountability; allow journalists to raise questions the public may be concerned about; and also allow a president to shape his message.”
Indeed, during his campaign, Trump often criticized his rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, for failing to engage more with the press.
“Crooked Hillary Clinton has not held a news conference in more than 7 months. Her record is so bad she is unable to answer tough questions!” he tweeted in June 2016.
The pattern marks a dramatic departure from historic precedent, according to records kept by The American Presidency Project and dating back to Calvin Coolidge. In their first years alone, President Barack Obama held 11 solo news conferences, George W. Bush held five, and Bill Clinton a dozen. Trump held just one.
It’s part of a pattern reflecting Trump’s extraordinarily hostile relationship with a press he loves to hate.
“The White House isn’t legally mandated or required to hold press conferences, but it’s a tradition that’s been in place because it serves the public,” said Katie Townsend, the litigation director at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “And I think the idea that the media is the enemy of the American people and an enemy of the president itself … I think the unwillingness to talk to the members of the media is part of that.”
But Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for George W. Bush, said there is little benefit for a White House to hold solo new conferences anymore since the president can communicate with the public in other ways.
“So long as the president is held accountable as a result of frequent pool sprays, as a result of frequent press conferences with heads of state, one-on-one interviews, the public gets its accountability through other tactics beyond formal long-winded news conferences,” Fleischer said.
Bush, he noted, wasn’t a fan of the prime-time news conference, complaining that reporters would “peacock” at those events, making them more about themselves than the president.
Trump, however, seems to like the format, which he credited last year for his election win.
“Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But I’m not ranting and raving. I love this,” he said during his press conference last year. “I’m having a good time doing it.”