After two flayings on Saturday Night Live, sustained mockings on late-night shows, and a series of televised confrontations with reporters, White House press secretary Sean Spicer is retreating from the harsh glare of the daily televised briefing.
The White House has not held a televised briefing in seven days, after regularly holding the traditional on-camera event in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room on weekdays when President Donald Trump was not travelling.
Instead, Spicer and the press shop is increasingly turning to off-camera “gaggles” that shield the embattled press secretary from scrutiny — both from a fascinated national audience and a certain regular viewer in the Oval Office.
There is a concern in the White House that a combative briefing can take away from the administration’s attempt at orchestrated news, and the president prefers controlling the message himself, one White House official said.
For example, last Wednesday, the White House made a decision not to send Spicer out, hoping to instead bask in positive news coverage from the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress. On Monday, the administration instead decided to have top Cabinet officials make on-camera statements about the president’s revamped travel ban instead of Spicer.
“I don’t think there’s a desire to have an on-camera briefing every day,” one White House official said, describing the briefings as “some days better than others.”
Formally, the White House said it’s following through on its promises to give the press corps access to the thinking inside the West Wing.
“As Sean has said on the record since January, we would conduct a daily briefing of some sort — some on camera, some off — and we have done just that,” said White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters in an email. “Several reporters, including some broadcast ones, agree that off camera briefings tend to [be] more informative. Today, we had a White House spokesperson out on the morning shows and the Secretaries of State, Homeland Security and Attorney General do an on camera announcement.”
The White House Correspondents Association pushed to have Monday’s briefing on camera, WHCA president Jeff Mason confirmed, but to no avail. Spicer briefed the press off camera in the briefing room for over an hour, taking dozens of questions. And after making the rounds on cable later in the afternoon, he spoke to a gaggle of reporters on camera outside the West Wing.
Spicer’s relationship with the press has been rocky, even by the standards of a charged and tumultuous time for the press and the administration. Spicer has berated reporters as “Page Six reporters,” planted a false story about a POLITICO reporter in a conservative-leaning newspaper after the reporter wrote a story he did not like, and he has repeatedly been challenged for delivering untruths from the podium — many of which are peculiar for how easy they are to debunk, like his outlandish claims on Jan. 21 that Trump’s inauguration had drawn the biggest crowd ever, “period.”
The briefings have sometimes proven stressful for Spicer, who is frequently critiqued by the president for his answers, appearance and demeanor. The president often watches the daily briefing from a TV in the West Wing.
As Spicer bobbed and weaved on Monday around questions about Trump’s explosive allegation that former President Barack Obama ordered wire tapping of his phones during the campaign — “I’ll just let the tweet speak for itself,” Spicer said — PBS streamed the audio of the briefing live, but it was sure to reach a much smaller audience than broadcasts on the three cable networks. His inability to provide any evidence for Trump’s allegations may have been why the administration opted to keep the briefing off camera.
“See how much nicer this,” Spicer said smiling, early in the briefing. But as the wire-tapping and Russia questions continued, he appeared to grow irritated. He at one point said Trump has “sources” for his claim and when pressed on what those sources were, he snapped at the inquiring reporter, CNN’s Sara Murray: “Sara, you’re not on camera, you don’t need to jump in.”
At the end of the briefing, Spicer defended the access the administration has provided.
“Don’t give me this ‘normally we do,’” Spicer said. “I made it very clear at the beginning of this…that we would have some things on camera, some off. … We have gone above and beyond allowing the press into events.”
“I made it very clear from the beginning of this that we’d have a briefing everyday, we’ve gaggled every day, we’ve made ourselves available to you,” he added.
In an interview in his office after the briefing, Spicer pointed out that his position of mixing on- and off-camera briefings had been laid out before the inauguration. He noted the length of Monday’s briefing, and said both he and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had made themselves available for interviews with all the networks on Monday. He also pointed to expanded access to the briefings via semi-regular “Skype seats” for local outlets, and pointed to Trump’s dinner last week with local networks as a sign of the administration’s expanded access.
Tuesday’s briefing, he said, will be televised.
Indeed, a televised availability isn’t always what the White House wants.
The briefings often turn combative and sometimes make news and can distract from the message the White House is trying to push, according to a White House official.
Former White House press secretary Mike McCurry, who worked in the Clinton White House, was the first to allow the daily briefings to be televised live, a move he says he now regrets.
“I just believed there should not be live coverage unless warranted,” McCurry said in an email.
When McCurry was the State Department spokesman, he embargoed the on-camera briefing until its conclusion unless there was breaking news that necessitated a live briefing.
“I should have imposed this concept in 1995 when I allowed full coverage of the briefings at the White House but didn’t really think of it and it did not really matter until 3 years later when the Monica episode became a day-time soap opera,” McCurry said. “The idea was to limit the posturing on both sides of the podium and make it a real ‘briefing’ with information, content, explanations, etc. Ideally ‘raw ingredients’ for news stories but not news itself. I’m afraid we are well beyond that now.”
“If Sean is doing it so that he can provide more factual information in a less combative environment, I think there is merit to that,” McCurry said, though he noted he did not know the true motives behind moving the briefings off camera.
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for former President George W. Bush, said on Monday that some of Spicer’s briefings had gotten too “amped up” and that the decision to turn off the cameras at times is a good one.
“If they decide this White House is just too hot and it needs to be cooled down, I salute them,” he said. “It’s a smart recognition for them to recognize the Trump White House needs to be a calmer White House. And the briefings have often veered into red-hot TV show land, which is not good for everyone.”
The retreat from the press has taken place administration-wide. The State Department has curtailed its own briefings, which used to take place daily. The briefings were set to resume this week, but Monday’s was cancelled after the rollout of the new travel ban executive order Monday morning, which included a statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The Obama White House held on-camera briefings almost every business day of the administration, according to reporters who covered Obama, with the exception of days Obama himself held a press conference. When Obama was traveling domestically, the White House would gaggle with the press either on Air Force One or on location. Trump’s administration has taken to very short gaggles on Air Force One on days Trump is traveling. Josh Earnest, Obama’s last press secretary, never did an off-camera gaggle in the briefing room in lieu of a daily briefing as Spicer has done, according to multiple reporters.
In an email to POLITICO after this article published, Spicer more forcefully tried to make the case that the press was getting plenty of access. He said it was his call not to hold an on-camera briefing on Wednesday and noted that Thursday and Friday were travel days. He said the short briefing on Thursday was because of the short duration of the flight. He also noted that he held an impromptu on-camera gaggle later in the day on Monday for more than 20 minutes outside the West Wing. And he pointed to a period late in Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign when then-Press Secretary Jay Carney apparently did not hold a gaggle every single day.
And Spicer has previously expressed his skepticism about the value of daily, on-camera press briefings.
“I’ve started to talk to all the previous press secretaries about … are there tweaks to it we can make,” Spicer told former Obama adviser David Axelrod in an early January podcast. “But, you know, Mike McCurry has been a big advocate of taking it off camera. I’ve talked to some of the press secretaries about that. Once we televised it, it became more of a show than a substantive discourse. The Pentagon has a gaggle every day and then an on-camera briefing a couple times a week. That’s something that I’ve continued to ask, not just press secretaries, but journalists, do you think it is more substantive if we do this?”
Josh Dawsey, Edward-Isaac Dovere and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.
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