The “Enemies of the People” Have a Few Questions for the President
The President of the United States has called the media “the enemy of the people” dozens of times since taking office. Donald Trump did it again on Monday night, tweeting out, while apparently watching the prime-time Fox News lineup, “The Fake News Media is the true Enemy of the People!” This attack on journalism was hardly even mentioned in the next day’s voluminous coverage of the President. An outburst two weeks ago, however, in which he declared the Times the “enemy of the people,” was widely covered, given that he was trashing the newspaper not long after its publisher made an impassioned personal plea, in the Oval Office, for Trump to abandon his use of the term, with its Stalinist connotations.
Still, it’s one of the persistent and most notable paradoxes of this President that, for someone who declares himself at war with the press, Trump is happy to engage with it on his terms. He gives regular interviews to his favorite Fox News hosts; he invited anchors from all the networks to an off-the-record lunch before his State of the Union address. He often turns Oval Office photo ops with visiting dignitaries into impromptu press availabilities. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has adopted her own version of this strategy, all but abandoning the daily press briefings that have been an American tradition, under both parties, for decades. Instead, she issues an occasional written statement and makes informal comments to the media, often in response to questions shouted at her after she finishes a morning Fox News interview on the White House driveway. There are no official transcripts posted of these brief gaggles, and little meaningful follow-up.
This week in Washington, the temperature hovered near freezing as the press pack tried to ask Sanders and any other White House official who appeared outside about the collapse of Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, the White House response to congressional investigations of the President, the state of emergency Trump has declared at the southern border, and the trade talks with China that are said to be nearing a conclusion, among other pressing issues. They were not forthcoming.
The Administration, of course, never formally announced that it was killing off the White House press briefing—that would have caused too great an outcry. But that is nonetheless what it has done, as Trump himself admitted in a January tweet, saying that “the reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately.” The last official briefing by Sanders was on January 28th; it was the first such briefing in forty-one days. All told, there was one press briefing in November, one in December, two in January, and none at all in February, or, so far, in March. This is not just a White House policy. The State Department, which used to give a near-daily press briefing that was considered significant by journalists from around the world, had six “department press briefings” briefings in November, two in December, none in January, two in February, and one so far in March.
This is not how it should work in a democracy, and there is no explanation other than a bad one for why this is happening. The Administration’s elimination of regular on-the-record press briefings is part of a broader war on truth and transparency by a President who will go down as the most publicly mendacious American leader we’ve yet had. (Trump’s epic speech at CPAC over the weekend was both the longest and, according to the Washington Post Fact Checker, the most untruthful of his tenure, clocking in at more than two hours and approximately a hundred lies, misstatements, and falsehoods.)
This is not an ode to the White House press briefing—far from it. I am well aware of the critiques of it as an institution, and I agree with many of them. Long before Trump, it had become an increasingly frustrating spectacle, the domain of TV showboats and ritualized made-for-broadcast combat. But we are talking about the difference between asking questions in a flawed setting and not asking them at all. In this situation, I mourn the briefing’s untimely death. This week, amid a veritable flood of Trump news about which the Administration has not bothered to comment or been forced to answer questions, the long, annoying, contentious press briefings of old are genuinely missed.
Under previous Presidents, a weekday briefing might last an hour, with dozens of inquiries and replies, many of them factual. There is essentially none of that now, at a time when there is so very much to ask about. Consider that the President declared the country to be in a state of emergency at the southern border, back on February 15th. White House aides held a call with reporters to announce it, but they were unable to answer many questions, which have remained unaddressed. How, exactly, does Trump intend to use emergency powers to transfer money from the defense budget to pay for his proposed border wall? Which accounts will be tapped, and when? At the expense of which other projects? Where is the memorandum from his lawyers arguing that this is constitutional? By what government process, rather than the President’s personal pique at Congress, was the “emergency” determination made?
Consider the news this week alone: the North Koreans are reportedly rebuilding their missile-launch sites after Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un collapsed. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly had Trump intervene to get them security clearances that would otherwise have been denied. Congressional investigators are opening wide-ranging inquiries into Trump’s business; New York State has subpoenaed Trump’s insurance company, and his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who testified against the President in a remarkable open session last week, has produced numerous checks bearing Trump’s signature that Cohen says were part of an illegal hush-money scheme to keep a porn star from going public about a past affair during the 2016 election. And, by the way, nearly three months after the Secretary of Defense quit, there’s still no sign of a permanent replacement. The White House is being run by an interim chief of staff who has had “acting” attached to his title since Trump fired his predecessor, in December. Speaking of the last chief of staff, John Kelly shared some stinging criticisms of the President on Wednesday night, in his first public appearance since being dumped. Wouldn’t it be great to hear what Sanders has to say about Kelly’s view that the President’s emergency declaration was not legally supportable?
I have questions, many of them. I’m sure you do, too. I would love for the White House press corps to be able to ask them on our behalf.
On Thursday, I asked two dozen accredited White House correspondents from America’s leading news organizations—television, radio, print, and wires—what questions they would ask Sanders this week if she had chosen to have a briefing. The responses I received from the journalists (I did not ask my husband, Peter Baker, the Times’ chief White House reporter, to participate) were smart, professional, urgent, and voluminous. “So many questions,” one network correspondent wrote. “So many more!” another wrote.
Several made a point of telling me that they were hardly idealizing the old days of the White House briefings, which were, as one prominent television correspondent put it, all too often “a reservoir of cant and pablum.” And yet, the correspondent wrote, “The absence of the daily briefing is creating a void in public awareness of and interaction with the WH. The benefit of the briefing is that it forces the WH to deal with follow-up questions. Though Trump is quite accessible, follow-ups are rare and daily interactions, though frequent, are understandably driven by the day’s most pressing news. That limits the scope of questions and allows the WH to duck plenty of issues and defend its overall approach.”
The array of subjects and controversies about which we lack even basic information shows just how much the public is losing because the White House has shut down legitimate, regular inquiries. A sampling: “What, exactly, is happening with troop withdrawals in Syria (the story has been all off the map in the past four weeks)?” “What is the WH doing about the Khashoggi case in terms of learning more or pressing the Saudis for accountability?” “When the president deflects DHS statistics on border enforcement, as he did in the Rose Garden, what statistics does he believe? Where do they come from and how can you vouch for their accuracy?”
A particularly thoughtful response came in from the Associated Press’s Washington bureau chief, Julie Pace. “I canvassed my team and we came up with about 20 right off the bat—which goes to show how many unanswered questions there are out there,” she wrote. “The White House will make the point that the President frequently takes questions from journalists, which is true. But briefings are a better format for really diving in on a topic in a different way than a quick gaggle or shouted questions to the President.”
The questions she forwarded were fair, relevant, and barely even cover the long list of stories about Trump and his Administration that should demand our attention:
The President railed against budget and trade deficits, but after
two years in office both are setting records. Are his economic
policies failing in this regard? Does he still see deficits as a
priority? If so, what policies—particularly on the budget deficit—is
he pursuing to bring it down? Or are deficits no longer a priority for
Under what legal authority is the President keeping American troops
in Syria indefinitely?
Why hasn’t the President selected a permanent chief of staff or
Defense Secretary, and why doesn’t the uncertainty and turnover in
those posts make the nation less safe?
Did the President play any role in the granting of Jared Kushner’s
security clearance? If so, why did he appear to lie about it in his
interview with the New York Times?
There are more, of course, many having to do with Cohen’s testimony last week implicating Trump in alleged criminal acts before and after he became President. Other important questions remain about major Administration decisions, such as the recent announcement that the new Attorney General, William Barr, will not recuse himself from dealing with the special counsel’s upcoming report on Trump and Russia. And then there are the policy questions, which tend to get short shrift amid scandal-dominated headlines, but which could and would be asked were Sanders to hold regular briefings. Ballooning trade deficits under the President who vowed to eliminate the national debt? The new White House climate-change panel? Peace talks in Afghanistan?
I asked Sanders in an e-mail for her comment on whether this is now the death of the White House press briefing, and whether she wanted to respond to any of the questions the correspondents had sent to me. She did not respond.