Nearly every president in office, at one time or another, is confronted with a near-impossible decision.
Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. Truman relieving General MacArthur. Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis. And now, the great question of President Donald Trump’s era: does he care more about his image? Or about his ratings?
The president’s unquenchable thirst for the attention of “the crooked media” and his ravenous hunger to punish them is the pushmi-pullyu of the Trump era—the political equivalent of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. But as Trump’s faith in his press shop reportedly wears thinner with every briefing gone awry, the White House communications team appears ready to make the president’s choice for him.
On Monday, reporters were barred from broadcasting live video or audio during the afternoon White House press briefing, the second briefing at which journalists were explicitly banned from making audio broadcasts since the previous Thursday. Press secretary Sean Spicer, flanked by counselor Kellyanne Conway and former Apprentice agitator-turned-communications liaison Omarosa Manigault, explained that the president’s appearance earlier with the president of Panama was enough for the whole class to share.
“I’ve said it since the beginning—the president spoke today, he was on camera. He’ll make another comment today at the technology summit,” Spicer said when asked why reporters couldn’t broadcast the briefing live. “And there are days that I’ll decide that the president’s voice should be the one that speaks, and iterate his priorities.”
Spicer’s decision to ban live broadcasting of the press briefing is the latest in a series of attempts to curtail transparency and visibility at the White House. Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have collectively briefed reporters only seven times in all of June, including Monday and last Thursday’s no-broadcast gaggles. The length of those briefings have gone down, as well, averaging only 27 minutes per briefing this month.
White House reporters, for their part, appeared visibly chafed by the newest restrictions in the briefing room.
“The White House press secretary is getting to a point, Brooke, where he’s just kind of useless,” CNN correspondent Jim Acosta told anchor Brooke Baldwin on Monday afternoon. “You know, 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 having these briefings or these gaggles in the first place?”
“It's bizarre,” said Acosta, who despite being labeled “fake news” to his face during a press conference with President Trump in February is not known for editorializing his reporting. “I don’t know what world we’re living in right now, Brooke, where we’re standing at the White House and they bring us into the briefing room here at the White House, and they won’t answer these questions on camera or let us record the audio... I don’t understand why we covered that gaggle today, quite honestly, Brooke. If they can’t give us the answers to the questions on camera or where we can record the audio, they’re basically pointless.”
Jeff Mason, a White House Correspondent for Reuters and the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, did not return a request for comment regarding possible retaliation for what Acosta characterized as the White House’s “stonewalling” of the press, but others in the press corps are beginning to share Acosta’s sentiment.
“I find their reliance on off-camera briefings to be very frustrating,” a White House correspondent who has covered the Obama and Trump administrations told The Daily Beast. “If I can’t include video of my questioning, it makes me wonder why I shouldn’t just skip the briefing and rely on email to get answers.”
Pulling the press briefings from the airwaves is a remarkable shift in communications strategy for the president, whose staffers have long lauded what they call his sophisticated understanding the power of messaging and marketing in politics. Trump—a former reality-television star whose fixation on Nielsen data predates his political career—has a long-standing obsession with the power of television. Live cable news broadcasts that have turned Spicer into a household name are a vehicle for his agenda, a governing tool, a thermometer for the nation’s political temperature—and, of course, a measuring stick for staff performance.
In April, when the notion that White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s job might be on the line was not yet a perennial news item, Trump reportedly dismissed the notion that Spicer was going anywhere because he was beating network soap operas in the ratings.
“I’m not firing Sean Spicer,” Trump said, according to the Washington Post. “That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.”
But the president’s antipathy towards the reporters who actually populate the briefing room appears to have outstripped the utility of beating General Hospital among adults 18-49.
One solution in the White House press corps has been to ignore the more draconian measures. Reporters were still visibly using audio recorders in the briefing room on Monday, and it’s unlikely that Spicer will roam the aisles to bat Facebook Live-enabled smartphones out of reporters’ hands. But on the larger question of whether the White House truly understands the role of the reporters in the West Wing, other correspondents see skirting the rules as dodging the issue.
“The problem is that within the White House there's a pervasive misunderstanding of the role of the press and the role of the officials tasked with communicating directly with us,” said Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent for New York Magazine and a former reporter at The Daily Beast.
But the solution to that problem, Nuzzi said, isn’t to follow Acosta’s suggestion that the press corps start boycotting the briefings.
“I think that’s what they're hoping for—an easy out from doing their job of informing the public by answering to a free and independent media,” Nuzzi said. “If the White House is going to continue to attempt to avoid the press in favor of communicating through press releases and presidential tweets, let’s cover the shit out of that and highlight, as often as possible, how ridiculous and abnormal this is becoming.”
Looming over all of this—as it looms over everything involving the White House—is the mercurial man in the Oval Office himself. President Trump has openly mused about curtailing on-camera briefings to zero, or kicking reporters out of the White House entirely.
Of course, that threat may just be the latest move by the self-described “master negotiator,” said one White House correspondent.
“Maybe it’s a credit to his negotiating skills that we're willing to accept off-camera briefings.”