It seems clear, at this point, that the White House would prefer not to hold regular press briefings. But President Trump and his aides do not want to be the ones to pull the plug. They want journalists to do it.
The White House is playing a game of chicken with the media, making the briefing situation so untenable that reporters might bail first. If successful, Team Trump will achieve its desired outcome while avoiding the blame.
The apparent strategy has three prongs:
Turn off the cameras
Eight of the last 11 briefings have been held off camera, including Friday’s. The White House also banned live audio broadcasts of those sessions.
This is the new normal, and it makes for lousy television. Cable news networks initially aired audio recordings on delay, under still images, but quickly abandoned the degraded productions.
Stop answering questions
A month ago, the White House said it would refer all questions about the special counsel-led investigation of Russian election meddling to Trump’s private attorneys. On other subjects, too, White House spokesmen increasingly say they don’t know the answers or haven’t asked the president.
During an off-camera briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the administration’s theme of the week would be “energy dominance.”
“What does energy dominance mean?” a reporter asked.
“Well, I think we’ll continue to talk about that throughout the week,” Spicer replied. He proceeded with a vague answer about “our ability to now export” and “our ability to maximize our natural resources and create jobs.” Pressed for details, Spicer delivered none.
“I think it means a lot of things,” he said. “I mean, just the ability to now be an exporter helps us in economic ways, but then obviously there is a political aspect to this.”
Even on the topic that the White House supposedly wanted to make a focal point, Spicer had little information to share.
The White House appears to by trying to turn briefings into such low-value events that reporters will stop showing up.
“The White House press secretary is getting to a point where he’s just kind of useless,” CNN’s Jim Acosta said on the air after an unproductive briefing last week. “If he can’t come out and answer the questions, and they’re just not going to do this on camera or audio, why are we even doing these briefings or these gaggles in the first place?”
Must watch: @CNN’s @Acosta says the White House is “stonewalling.” Briefings are “basically pointless at this point” https://t.co/j6PsdqhkGI
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) June 19, 2017
Show the media at its worst
The White House picked two days this week to hold briefings on camera: Tuesday, the day after three CNN journalists resigned following a retraction, and Thursday, the day that Trump tweeted a sexist attack on MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski.
These are not coincidences.
The retraction and resignations at CNN created a prime opportunity for the White House to rip the media, and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders certainly took it. Without evidence, she accused the press of outright fabrication and said “if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America.”
A couple days later, Trump’s tweets about Brzezinski set the scene for a circuslike event, which is how the White House has been trying to characterize briefings, in general. Questions about the president’s tweets dominated the session, and some reporters were visibly offended. That was perfectly understandable, but the optics likely helped the White House make its case that journalists use the briefings to grandstand.
See? They’re not interested in policies or hard-working Americans. They just talk about themselves and ask the same questions over and over.
The White House seems to be trying to drive journalists toward the following conclusion: Briefings are bad TV, hardly informative and make us look petty. Let’s stop going.
Axios co-founder Mike Allen argued on Thursday that reporters should do just that.
The White House strategy is working.