Three days after winning the White House, President-elect Barack Obama held an 18-minute news conference, fielding questions about Iran, President George W. Bush, the speed of his Cabinet appointments, his Senate successor, his intelligence briefings and even what type of dog he would buy for his daughters.
Thirteen days after his surprise win, President-elect Donald Trump has held zero news conferences. He’s sat for several interviews and plans to go direct to Americans with a taped video about his legislative priorities, and on Monday hosted an off-the-record meeting with major television executives and anchors at Trump Tower. Another meeting with the media is planned for Tuesday that will include The New York Times, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Monday.
Conway also told reporters assembled in the lobby of Trump Tower on Monday that there would be a news conference “in due course.” While the video will provide some sought-after updates on the progress of the transition, at 13 days Trump has already gone the longest of any incoming president since at least 1976 without having one.
A news conference would allow reporters to ask follow-up questions to his announcements about his upcoming administration. A video bypasses all of this. Meanwhile, the off-the-record nature of the meeting between Trump and the media executives is raising questions about the kind of relationship Trump means to have with the news media as president.
Trump has had a tempestuous relationship with the press for most of his adult life, but his 2016 presidential campaign put that relationship under a magnifying glass.
On the one hand, he’s been more accessible than most candidates — hopping on the phone with many reporters, calling in to television shows and in the beginning, holding many news conferences and criticizing his opponent for shying away from them.
But he’s also blacklisted entire media outlets, singled out individual reporters during his raucous rallies to the point that they needed security protection of their own. Further down the line, he has said, he hopes he can change libel laws to make it easier for public figures to sue media companies.
His transition team still has not instituted a formal protective press pool — the rotating group of reporters who travel with the president and are aware of nearly every move — though day-to-day relations on that front have improved in recent days; the campaign has intermittently allowed the press pool to join the motorcade and to stand outside of his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club instead of having to work out of a nearby hotel; as a result, pool reporters were able to document an extraordinary parade of Cabinet contenders and well-wishers entering and leaving the club.
“Went great,” Trump said on Sunday after meeting with 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “Very talented man,” he offered of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Asked why the president-elect has not yet held a news conference but was releasing a video, Republican National Committee chief strategist and communications director Sean Spicer said: “I would note the president-elect had the entire press corps join him in Bedminster, and we were surprised Politico chose not to attend.”
(POLITICO is part of the Trump print press pool, a group of reporters who rotate through covering the president-elect and distribute reports to the rest of the media. The news outlets scheduled for the pool this past weekend included the BBC, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. POLITICO’s rotation starts later this week.)
If Trump’s relationship with the news media is unusual, his release of a video in an attempt to reach around the press to his public is not at all unprecedented, and follows a trend that has been developing over the past eight years. President Barack Obama was the first president of the social media and online video age, and often used those media to speak directly to his supporters or specific segments of the population.
“In the shift from old to new media, the White House has essentially become its own media production company, one that can sometimes look like a state-run news distribution service,” the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin wrote in May 2015 about Obama’s new media outreach.
Trump is also not breaking any ground by holding off-the-record meetings with media figures. Network anchors traditionally have an off-the-record meeting with the president ahead of the State of the Union, and Obama has held several off-the-record meetings with reporters and columnists throughout his tenure.
But these meetings take place at an especially curious time given Trump’s acrimonious relationship with the networks. He regularly derided CNN, basking in chants of “CNN Sucks!” at his rallies. (CNN, which had several representatives at the meeting on Monday, reported the meeting presented “great progress” for media access.) He’s personally insulted several of the anchors attending the meeting on Monday, including NBC’s Chuck Todd, whom he called “sleepy eyes.”
“There was no need to mend fences,” Conway said. “It was very cordial, very genial. But it was very candid and very honest. From my own perspective, it’s great to hit the reset button.”
The television networks are a powerful group that when banding together can deny Trump something he himself has said he enjoys: television coverage. More recently the networks agreed not to air video or images of the Prime Minister of Japan meeting with Trump over protests that the campaign did not allow any reporters into the meeting for even a photo. Instead, the Japanese government provided a video of the meeting.
Earlier this year, the network executives pulled their camera from the pool after Trump refused to allow a reporter or producer accompany him for a planned tour of his Washington, D.C., hotel.
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