Reporters Emerald Robinson and Jon Decker were in a tough place Tuesday. They were the two reporters picked to ask questions of President Trump at his joint press conference with the Polish president. That meant they had to choose from all the news events since the president’s last formal session with the press and decide where to push for answers.
On two fronts, it is a dilemma unique to this White House and this president. No president in the century since Woodrow Wilson has taken fewer questions from reporters and held fewer formal press conferences. In 2018, Trump has had only 11 truncated press sessions in the United States, all involving foreign leaders, with only 22 reporters called on. He had another five press conferences overseas with a more normal 76 questions.
On the second front, no modern peacetime White House has been more of a maelstrom of issue confusion and controversy, and has found itself trying to juggle more at the same time. Every White House has to deal with multiple challenges, but the pace at the Trump White House has been dizzying.
Issues and developments that in earlier administrations would have dominated multiple news cycles find themselves swallowed whole by succeeding waves of controversy, often by the next day. So Robinson, White House correspondent for the conservative One America News Network, and Decker, who covers the White House for Fox News Radio, had many topics to choose from. This was the first formal press conference for Trump in 50 days, since his July 30 session with the Italian prime minister.
To suggest that much had happened in those 50 days would be a clear understatement. Just in the 15 days before this press conference, all these things occurred with only one White House briefing:
—Trump tweeted that Republicans should not be prosecuted
—Bob Woodward’s book Fear came out
—The White House launched a counterattack on Woodward’s book
—The Brett Kavanaugh hearings were held
—A Trump appointee known as “Anonymous” wrote a scathing op-ed in The New York Times
—Trump called on the Justice Department to investigate the op-ed
—The administration slashed the number of refugees it would admit to the country
—A letter was received from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
—President Obama broke his silence and attacked Trump
—The administration ordered the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington
—The administration threatened sanctions against the International Criminal Court
—Trump ordered new sanctions on foreign actors who interfere in U.S. elections
—Trump disputed the death count in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria
—Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas
—Sen. Diane Feinstein sent a letter to the FBI, scrambling Kavanaugh’s confirmation
—Kavanaugh’s accuser identified herself publicly
—Republicans put off the Kavanaugh vote and set a new hearing
—Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty and promised cooperation
—Former Trump aide George Papadopoulos was sentenced to jail
—Reports leaked that the president will fire Defense Secretary James Mattis
—Trump announced more tariffs on China
—Trump ordered the declassification of material in the Russia investigation
All that in just the two weeks before Trump entered the East Room with the Polish president and called on the two reporters. Robinson asked him about the news of the day—the downing of a Russian warplane over Syria. Decker asked him about Kavanaugh and tariffs. Unavoidably, all the other potential questions went unasked, a vivid reminder of the dizzying pace of news in the Trump presidency.
The only precedent may be the Nixon White House in the throes of Watergate. On Oct. 10, 1973, Spiro Agnew became the second vice president ever to resign the office, the first because of corruption. But so much else happened that when President Nixon held a formal press conference 16 days later, not a single question was asked about Agnew, the resignation overtaken by the special prosecutor, White House tapes, and talk of impeachment.
George C. Edwards III, former director of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and current Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M, believes this rush of news does more than just challenge reporters. He said it also confuses the public and is one reason that the White House has difficulty pushing the Trump agenda. “There are all the investigations of Trump associates and of Trump and Russia,” he said. “Then you’ve got the issues of what I’ll call White House chaos. ... Then, you’ve got Trump’s defensiveness and his feeling that he has to defend against everything.”
All that is too much for many in the public to take in. But Edwards said it is made worse by Trump’s penchant for “mendacity” and hyperbole. “If he just said the correct things about something, then there’s no story. But when he says something crazy like about the deaths in Puerto Rico, there is a new story. And that generates still additional stories.”
Edwards said the last president to generate such a flurry of policy activity was Lyndon B. Johnson from 1964 to 1966 when he was pushing through the Great Society. LBJ, though, was able to focus the press and the public on his agenda. “These were big bills, important bills, with lots going on,” said Edwards, who has written extensively on the use of the bully pulpit. “But you didn’t at the same time have criminal investigations and the president tweeting and you didn’t have all these kinds of different things going on. There was more discipline and fewer stories and you could focus on his issues, like civil rights.”
He said history provides little counsel for the beleaguered White House communications staff on how to cut through clutter. “It’s not like there are Band-Aids you can just stick on these things and everything is just dandy,” he said. “No matter how great a PR person you are, you can’t fix this is you’re not able to control Trump.”