In 1913, Woodrow Wilson held the White House’s first press conference. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover formally established the position of White House Press Secretary. Ever since, the White House has become gradually more open to the press, with press briefings becoming more frequent, Presidents themselves more accessible, and the inner-workings of the federal government more transparent to the American public. The White House press briefing has become a staple of the executive branch’s interaction with the press – it offers the White House a platform to provide information, and offers the media the chance to ask the administration questions directly. The White House press briefing has made American government more transparent and more accountable to the people, and its diminishing use in the Trump White House is another example of democratic backslide in the United States.
Since the Trump administration installed Sarah Huckabee Sanders as Press Secretary, the press briefing has virtually disappeared. During her tenure, Sanders has held fewer briefings per month than the previous 13 press secretaries. In November and December of 2018 and January of 2019, she held only one briefing per month. This isn’t a matter of coincidence – in January, Trump tweeted that he had told her “not to bother” with press briefings because “the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately”. While saying that the press depicts Sanders “rudely & inaccurately” is not the same as suing the press for libel, the intent remains to discredit the media , potentially with the goal of creating a chilling effect . This also creates an opening for further executive aggrandizement in the future, when the President can point to the press, whom he has already categorized as Fake News, and take that extra step with a libel or defamation suit. The groundwork has already been laid.
The administration also argues that press briefings simply aren’t necessary in this Presidency – with Trump extolling his thoughts on Twitter and regularly taking impromptu questions from press on the White House lawn, Trump himself is fairly accessible to the press and to the public. Why bother with the middlemen – in this case, press briefings – when you can get the news straight from the horse’s mouth?
Well, for one, the horse is not omniscient. Trump, like any president, cannot possibly know the ins and outs of every policy in place or being discussed at any given time. Press briefings allow the press to ask the press secretary, and often other officials in the executive branch, detailed policy questions – questions to which the president may or may not know the answer. President Trump does not have the ability to give the press the information it needs, which without press briefings means the press doesn’t get the information it needs, period.
Second, the horse is not the only horse worth hearing from. That is to say, the President does not act unilaterally, and his agenda is not the only one worth examining. While the President’s increased interaction with the public and participation in informal meetings with the press may give the public greater insight into his mind or actions at that given moment, they do not speak to the actions of the executive branch as a whole. Rather, the President uses Twitter and his interactions with the press to promote his own agenda. He controls the narrative. While no public official is above questioning, without press briefings, there are few opportunities to raise questions about other members of the Trump administration or about other policies the administration is pursuing.
Third, the public doesn’t always know what should be coming out of the horse’s mouth. It is the press’ job to know what government initiatives are forthcoming, which bills will soon be on the president’s desk, what world events might have an impact on diplomatic relations – and ask questions accordingly. The vast majority of Americans do not have the time, ability, or willpower to think about every bill coming across the Senate floor, or every individual Trump nominates to be an ambassador, or how the budget is being altered to fit the administration’s priorities. It is the role of the press to find these stories, to get the information from the White House, and to tell the public what matters and why it matters. Without press briefings, the public and the press have no control over the executive’s narrative.
At first glance, the decrease in White House press briefings seems innocuous, simply a change in tradition as technology allows us to have more direct contact with the President. In reality, this move hands over control of the narrative to the President – he tweets about the issues he wants to, answers the questions he wants to, promotes the narrative he wants to. The move undermines the legitimacy of the press, and works to divert attention away from topics that may be important to the people in favor of what is important to the President. Frankly, the American public wants, needs, and deserves more than just the information that comes straight from the horse’s mouth. Norris, Pippa. 2017. “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks.” Journal of Democracy, April 2017.  Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673- 1742. Parts I, II and III.