Why the White House Briefing Matters

President Trump takes a lot of questions—but not the kinds of questions for which veteran correspondents rely on the briefing.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the daily press briefing Dec. 18
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Jan. 22, 2019, 1:49 p.m.

Even as the White House presides over the longest government shutdown ever, it has quietly made shutdown history in another way with the demise of the daily White House press briefing. Fatally wounded by a president who craves the spotlight and a press secretary who finds the jousting unpleasant, the briefing has been on life support for at least six months. Friday offered the latest sign that recovery is unlikely during the Trump presidency.

That day marked a full month since the last briefing, the longest gap between briefings in the three decades since they went on television and one of the longest since the institution began in 1896. In those early days, President McKinley’s secretary briefed reporters at noon and 4 p.m. In addition, according to writer Ida Tarbell, reporters in 1898 “every evening about ten o’clock [gathered] around Secretary [John] Porter for a kind of family talk, he discussing with them whatever of the events of the day he thinks it wise to discuss.” In the 119 years since, through steady evolution and constant tweaks, that “family" feeling was lost. But the briefing survived with no monthlong breaks until now, with the exception of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s top-secret travels to summits during World War II.

This White House does not have a world war to blame. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined repeated requests for comment over the last week. In earlier interviews, though, she has consistently explained her absence from the briefing room by emphasizing how often President Trump takes questions. “If you can hear directly from the president, and the press has a chance to ask the president of the United States questions directly, that’s infinitely better than talking to me,” she said in September on Fox News Sunday, adding, “That’s going to take the place of a press briefing, when you can talk to the president of the United States.”

On Tuesday, the president offered another explanation, tweeting, “The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately.” He added, “I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway!”

Even when she was holding formal briefings, they paled in comparison to the robust institution the administration inherited. That is starkly demonstrated by Sanders’s last briefing, held Dec. 18. No official records are kept, but this may have been the least amount of time devoted to Q&A since she became press secretary in July 2017. She spent only 13 minutes and 22 seconds calling on only 12 reporters and answering just 12 questions and 16 follow-ups. Only five topics were handled—former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the government shutdown and the border wall, the Federal Reserve, the Trump Foundation’s troubles, and policy toward Turkey.

The contrast with her predecessors is sharp. Martha Joynt Kumar of the White House Transition Project studied briefings in the second year of the Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush presidencies. In 2002, press secretary Ari Fleischer had 98 briefings, each lasting an average of 25 minutes. In 2010, Robert Gibbs had 104 briefings, each lasting an average of one hour. In 2018, Sanders had only 60 briefings, averaging 15 to 18 minutes.

A National Journal analysis found that from Aug. 1, 2015 through Jan. 15, 2016, press secretary Josh Earnest had 62 briefings. In the same time period from 2018 to 2019, Sanders had only 10, with only one in November and one in December. Earnest’s briefings averaged 73 minutes.

White House reporters bristle at Sanders’s contention that words from the president make up for the lack of briefings. “It’s great that the president has taken so many questions,” said Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM Radio and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. “But briefings can also be good for clearing out the underbrush of news: Is that meeting still on? Does he still plan to travel to X summit? When you’re face to face with the president, you’re generally more inclined to ask about headline items.”

That was the message from other correspondents who routinely attend the briefings. While no one denies that some reporters use the televised briefings to showboat or score points against the president, the correspondents interviewed by National Journal saw value in a different side of the sessions. All cited some questions they would have liked to ask had there been briefings during the past six months.

Knox wants to know the precise criteria for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, when Trump last spoke with Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin, and how Trump defines victory in Afghanistan and whether he think it is achievable.

Cheryl Bolen of Bloomberg BNA had queries she described as “really basic” and “not the type of questions that you can yell out in a scrum on the South Lawn,” about the farm bill and prescription-drug prices.

Jordan Fabian of The Hill went back and offered questions he wanted to ask on days when the president did not speak and there was no briefing. They included possible “litmus tests” when Trump picked William Barr to be his attorney general, any evidence the White House has to back up Trump’s assertion that “rogue killers” murdered Jamal Khashoggi, and why the president has not given a speech to explain his Syria and Afghanistan policy.

John Bennett at CQ Roll Call sees “no shortage of questions about President Trump’s dealings with lawmakers that have gone unanswered in the last few months.” He’d like to know if Vice President Mike Pence truly speaks for the president in the shutdown talks.

Steve Holland of Reuters said, “We love the Q&A with the president, but we also like to dig a bit deeper.” He added, “You just can’t get into the weeds on issues like this during an Oval Office spray.” He has questions on Syria policy and how it relates to Turkey, the Kurds, and Iran, and would like to go beyond the president’s repeated assertion that “progress” is being made in trade talks with China.

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