Laptops and phones, winter coats and scarves, a hubbub of different languages. A row of cameras sits on a bench. John Roberts of Fox News has a steely expression as he clutches a mic. Jim Acosta of CNN, press pass reinstated after his run-in with the president last year, speaks simultaneously to his own viewers: “We’ll see how much time we have Sarah Sanders. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, these briefings can end very quickly.”
Then a voice on the public-address system: “The press briefing will begin at 1.20pm. Thank you.” The hundred-or-so journalists crammed into the seats and aisles erupt in knowing laughs and groans. Sanders eventually enters at 1.35pm. It will be the White House press secretary’s sole briefing in the whole of November – a paltry total she will match in December.
The question-and-answer session was described as must-see television in the early months of the Trump administration, gripping millions of viewers and earning the accolade of parody on the TV variety show Saturday Night Live. But now the daily press briefing is no more. It has effectively become a monthly press briefing, raising concerns that it might soon disappear altogether.
“That would be a tragedy and a campaign point in 2020,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who served as White House communications director for 11 days in 2017. “I pray that that does not happen. For the president to be successful, you don’t want that to be a campaign talking point in 2020. The American people intuitively know that there needs to be an open communication between the White House and the free press.”
The first official White House press secretary was George Akerson under President Herbert Hoover in 1929. In recent decades the position became best known to the outside world for the briefing, in which the press secretary stands at a podium and fields questions from reporters in a briefing room (formerly a swimming pool) in the west wing.
Few have made such an explosive start as Sean Spicer, whose debut briefing in January 2017 included a tirade at the media and the now-infamous assertion about Donald Trump’s inauguration: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.”
Spicer’s briefings became a compulsive, car-crash spectacle. There was fluster, ill-fitting suits, gaffes such as “Holocaust centres” and Melissa McCarthy’s deathless impression of him with motorised lectern on Saturday Night Live. Scaramucci said: “They were must-watch television because he made a decision that he was going to lie and so everyone knew he was lying. There was a contradiction to the press briefing. Every Spice Girl has a nickname. His was Liar Spice.”
When Spicer was replaced by Sarah Sanders, the ship steadied, even though the falsehoods and acrimonious exchanges did not. Briefings became scarcer and lost the old momentum. It was like a long-running TV series that had passed its prime but did not know when to quit.
Sanders gave 11 briefings in January, seven in February, eight in March, eight in April, eight in May, five in June, three in July, five in August, one in September, two in October and one in November, making a total of 59, according to a count by Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project. Each of the last three was alongside other officials, not on her own.
Over the comparable period in 2010, Barack Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, held 95 briefings, Kumar’s research found. And from January to November 2002, George W Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, held a total of 85 briefings.
Sanders is not only more infrequent but also terser. Her briefings were usually around 15 to 18 minutes, according to Kumar, whereas Gibbs’s were usually around an hour and Fleischer’s were about 25 minutes.
The shift coincides with the press enjoying increasing access to Trump himself. It has become a ritual for the president to stop on the South Lawn and take questions from a scrum of media, albeit competing with the roar of the Marine One helicopter, before he boards and flies away. Combined with his insatiable tweeting, he has effectively rendered the press secretary close to redundant.
Kumar writes: “The basic finding is that Sarah Sanders doesn’t give briefings when Trump is doing multiple interviews and Q&As. October is a clear, though somewhat extreme, example. Together, Trump gave 71 interviews and short Q&As and she gave two briefings. In January, on the other hand, she gave 11 briefings and he did a total of 15 interviews and Q&As.”
The White House Correspondents Association has raised the issue with the administration. Olivier Knox, its president and author of a 2013 article headlined “Save the (terrible) White House briefing”, said: “It’s largely happened with the president of the United States being significantly more available in terms of taking questions from reporters on the South Lawn and in a series of interviews. He’s become much more his own spokesman.
“I don’t know any White House reporter who thinks the president should take fewer questions. It’s a little bit messy but that’s to be expected. I don’t know if they know they can ask the marines to turn off the helicopter.”
But the decline of briefings by the press secretary is concerning, Knox argues. “The people who are hurt the most are the smaller news outlets. If you’re down to one, two or three people in your Washington bureau, having a set time when the White House is available for questions is important.”
Scaramucci, who during his brief tenure insisted that live TV coverage of the briefings should resume, said: “Any time that the press can talk to the principal and can talk to the principal in volume, which has been experienced in this White House, is in general a very good thing for free press. I would, however, caution that it is still necessary for the comms team to have a regular interaction with the press because there are many things that go on inside the White House and the administration that the comms team and the press secretary need to discuss that is perhaps different from the principal.
“So it’s not a great excuse to use the accessibility of the principal as an alibi for having less press conferences.”
Trump’s freewheeling question-and-answer sessions, interviews and tweets, along with a steady flow of White House leaks, have arguably made this the most transparent presidency in American history. Yet in other ways this administration, with its flouting of norms and lurches from crisis to crisis, is also the most opaque.
Mike McCurry, who was press secretary to President Bill Clinton in the pre-Twitter 1990s, said: “If you have a president who gives you his innermost thoughts by tweets, why do you need a spokesperson to amplify what the president has already told you? But there’s an accountability function where the press has an opportunity to ask about federal government and all the other things going on.
“It was religious that we would do some kind of briefing every day. It was sacrosanct that someone would stand up at the White House every day and answer questions as an essential part of American democracy. The idea you could go a month without a briefing is astonishing.”