The White House briefing room has many functions: a storage space for tripods and camera gear, a backdrop for visitor photos, a temporary workspace for journalists without a desk.
What it is not, at least since March 11, is a venue for President Trump’s press secretary to brief reporters on administration policies.
Next week will mark six months since the last White House “daily” briefing, another erosion of transparency and democracy under Trump or a sad indictment of the “fake news” media’s incivility, depending on your view.
"The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the 'podium' much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press,” is howTrump defended the scarcity of briefingsearlier this year. “I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway!"
The number of briefings dwindled to about one a month at the end of 2018. Then they stopped altogether. The most recent came on March 11; then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders took to the podium for 14 minutes.
They have not been pronounced dead officially. But there is no prospect of their return.
“President Trump communicates with the American people more than any president in history,” saidStephanie Grisham, who replaced Sandersin July. “The fact that the White House press corps can no longer grandstand on TV is of no concern to us.”
It marks an indefinite hiatus for a ritual with its roots in the 19th century, when President Grover Cleveland’s private secretary Daniel Lamont sent aides to answer reporters’ questions. The press briefings as Americans, and the world, have come to know them can be dated to 1969, when President Richard Nixon removed the indoor swimming pool installed by Franklin Roosevelt and replaced it with the briefing room.
The relationship between press and presidents evolved over the next two decades, shifting and changing with successive presidents until 1995, when Bill Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, began letting the cameras cover the full briefing.
But that was a different, less partisan era, according to Raj Shah, who served as White House deputy press secretary until earlier this year. Last week, he told the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association that the daily briefing had a place “when the questions were fair,” not weapons used by a liberal-leaning media world.
“It’s an incredibly combative environment,” he said. “When I was in the White House it was nonstop hostility.”
At times, it has made for compelling viewing.
Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary, clashed with American Urban Radio Networks' correspondent April Ryan, accusing her of wanting to push her own agenda before snapping at her to stop shaking her head.
Jim Acosta, of CNN, had hiscredentials revokedafter he refused to surrender the microphone as he grilled the president on migrants approaching the U.S. border. It was returned after a court challenge.
And Brian Karem, Playboy’s White House correspondent, isfighting a suspensionafter a Rose Garden confrontation with Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump aide.
Advisers say the president is more accessible than predecessors, offering policy announcements on Twitter, taking questions from journalists several times a week for up to 45 minutes at a time, and phoning into news networks.Aides stop to talk to journalists in informal gagglesas they walk back from interviews before the network cameras lining the White House North Lawn.
McCurry, who now says he regrets televising the briefings, said an early morning tweet was no substitute for a complete analysis of policy.
“Journalists don’t have any real opportunity to follow up, to go deeper, to ask real questions about the meaning of policy, and I think there’s been a price paid for that because we’re not really understanding completely what is going on in this presidency,” he told the APSA.
There are advantages for the White House too in bringing back the briefings, according to Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary under George W. Bush.
“For the purposes of the White House, it is good to see and know and hear where the press is probing. It helps you to tighten your game,” he said.
He added that he remembered transport officials using the word “profiling” during a presentation to the president on security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
“They weren’t saying they were going to profile in the way it is commonly understood, but they used ‘profile’ in a briefing,” he said.
The language was changed when Fleischer pointed out that journalists would seize on the word in the briefing room, overshadowing important policy developments.
He called for the return of daily briefings but suggested they should be off camera, “changing it from a TV show to a real briefing.”
It would also offer insight into policy areas which are not at the front of the president’s mind, said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, who attended her first briefing in 1975.
The example of McCurry refereeing a lively briefing room at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal provided an example of good practice.