Presidential spokesman Sean Spicer held an on-camera briefing at the White House Tuesday, his first in eight days and possibly his last. At least he refused to say it wasn’t.
“We’re always looking for ways to do a better job of articulating the president’s message and his agenda, and we’ll continue to have those discussions internally. When we have an announcement of a personnel nature we will let you know.”
No one wants to discuss his own job security with a room full of at-times hostile reporters. But that wasn’t the White House press secretary’s only awkward moment. He was also seen repeating the kind of shrug-it-off responses he has been reduced to lately.
Has President Trump seen the health care bill being written in secret by Republicans in the Senate?
“I don’t know,” said Spicer, his expression an apparent mix of chagrin and bewilderment.
Does the president accept the consensus judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that the Russians tried to hack, if not hijack, the 2016 elections in America?
“I have not sat down and talked to him about that specific thing,” Spicer said, looking slightly dazed.
There has been a rising storm of high dudgeon among the national media in recent days because the daily briefings — when they happened at all — have been closed to cameras.
For TV reporters, that’s the professional equivalent of being excluded, and they have not been shy about complaining on-air.
Moreover, when the briefings do happen, whether on camera or off, they are shorter — sometimes very short — and terminated abruptly by Spicer. That means fewer questions are taken, and answers are more brief.
All these facts are assumed to mean Spicer’s tenure is nearing its end. Over the weekend it was reported (though not confirmed by NPR) that he would “move upstairs” to be communications director. That office has been vacant since Mike Dubke resigned in May.
It is widely believed that Spicer will make that move as soon as a successor can be found to occupy the podium in the press room — a prop made famous in the Saturday Night Live skits in which Spicer is impersonated by comedian Melissa McCarthy.
Rumors have swirled around various conservative media stars, including TV and radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. But the decision will ultimately be up to the president. And that might well be announced not from the podium, but from a certain Twitter account at dawn.
The larger question for the White House is not Spicer’s job title but the strategy for dealing with the media that burrow into the building every day in search of news. They come in many shapes and sizes and serve all forms of media from venerable newspapers and TV networks to overnight websites and upstart blogs. They also represent far more of the full political spectrum than most viewers would imagine.
But they all share a need for raw material so they can do their jobs. And if someone from the administration does not give it to them, they will seek it out by whatever means necessary. That reality has led even the most media-averse presidents to accommodate “the press” with White House space and staff time.
Initially, reporters were regarded as an annoyance at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The first stood outside the White House gate, waylaying those who came and went during the administration of Grover Cleveland. Teddy Roosevelt brought the ink-stained wretches indoors and regaled them with tales while he had his afternoon shave.
Woodrow Wilson tried to impose some order on the rabble with formal press conferences, of which he soon tired. Franklin Roosevelt gathered the regulars around his desk and told them quite a bit — but all off the record. He even told them not to share his tidbits with their editors.
Dwight Eisenhower had the first televised news conference in 1955, but it was scarcely a spontaneous affair. John Kennedy was the master of journalistic give-and-take, showing an active interest in the individual personalities of friend and foe alike.
In the ensuing years, the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter all ended disastrously in terms of media relations. Ronald Reagan did far better, setting a standard for dominating the media that his successor, George H.W. Bush, could not match.
The years of Bill Clinton were rocky as well, beginning with a sour relationship between White House reporters and Clinton’s first spokesman, George Stephanopoulos (now an anchor for ABC News). Clinton later installed Michael McCurry at the podium, and McCurry’s daily briefing became a cable TV hit. In a different style, Ari Fleischer would have a brief career as a media star for George W. Bush in the early 2000s.
And after Trump took office in January, something of that “must see” quality seemed to have returned to the daily briefings with Spicer and his stand-ins, notably Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Once again, the afternoon reality show from the White House was the top soap opera on TV.
But it was not a hit, by all reports, with its most important audience of one. The president routinely sniffs at “fake polls” that show him below 40 percent approval and refers to “fake media” that criticize and question him. But he would surely prefer those polls to be higher and those media — which he watches obsessively — to be more respectful.
Whatever happens to the briefing format and whoever stands at the podium, the essential tension between the president and the news media will remain. Ideally, they are all for the public. As a practical matter, they are engaged in an exercise of mutual exploitation. The media need material to feed their various audiences, the president needs the approval of those audiences as well.
The White House can decide how it wants to treat the media, but the media will decide how they handle the president.
On that you can rely.