Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders approached the lectern Thursday to take questions from White House reporters ― and then she was suddenly gone.
At least for TV viewers.
CNN producers cut back quickly to anchor Wolf Blitzer, who said the White House had barred video coverage of the daily press conference, which continued off-screen. Audio recordings were allowed but could only be broadcast after it ended.
“It’s strange to me, especially as a former White House correspondent, why on an important day like this, they don’t want the American public to see this live,” Blitzer said on air. Over on Fox News, host Martha MacCallum said that “news conferences have to happen live and they have to be documented with audio and in every possible way.”
Donald Trump’s White House doesn’t legally have to hold any briefings and, given the president’s unmatched hostility toward the news media, it seems unlikely they’ll be swayed by journalists’ concerns about transparency or commitment to democratic ideals. Press secretary Sean Spicer defended the White House’s accessibility on Wednesday, even as briefings have occurred infrequently and ground rules change day to day. Spicer barred audio and video at Monday’s briefing, but allowed both on Tuesday.
For decades, Republican and Democratic White Houses have customarily held on-camera briefings in the afternoon, except when the president is traveling or due to special circumstances. Past administrations have also held off-camera gaggles in the press secretary’s office. But those less formal, morning meetings weren’t considered a substitute for on-camera briefings in the afternoon.
CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta blasted Monday’s no-camera restrictions, suggesting journalists “should walk out” in protest.
“Why should reporters show up then?” asked MSNBC host Joy Reid regarding Thursday’s briefing after the White House announced video and audio was not permitted (before switching for no apparent reason to audio being allowed, but embargoed until its conclusion).
The White House’s restrictions have also prompted Twitter users to urge reporters to take a public stand by walking out of the briefing room until things change. But getting dozens of highly competitive reporters to walk out of the briefing room en masse isn’t easy, and veteran journalists say such a dramatic and visible display of collective action has never happened.
There have been small-scale boycotts. Some news organizations skipped a February briefing in Spicer’s office after others were kept out. But journalists are unlikely to leave a daily briefing if a White House official is still answering questions on the record, regardless of whether they can be recorded for broadcast. And reporters are reluctant to make themselves the story, especially at a moment when the Trump White House ― and Republicans across the country ― seems determined to frame the news media as “the opposition.”
Even during the Obama years, reporters balked at the notion of staging a briefing room protest over the administration’s harsh treatment of journalists in leak investigations. “It would be unprofessional,” CBS News Radio correspondent Mark Knoller told HuffPost at the time. “We’re there to cover the president, his policies and statements, not stage a protest. We endure delays in the briefing and obfuscation from the lectern, but we’re paid to be there.”
A week later, news executives met with Obama officials to voice their concerns, and the Justice Department later adopted new rules for dealing with reporters in leak investigations.
News executives have typically played more of a role in advocacy efforts than reporters individually. Washington bureau chiefs urged the Bush administration in 2005 to scale back background briefings, in which senior officials aren’t quoted by name. Network executives got the Obama administration to include Fox News in a round of interviews with a Treasury Department official in 2009.
The White House Correspondents Association has been the main advocacy group when it comes to seeking access to the president and his staff.
National Journal’s George Condon, a veteran reporter and author of a forthcoming book on the history of the century-old organization, told HuffPost they pushed for more access during former President Bill Clinton’s first foreign trip. During the Bush years, he recalled successful efforts to have then-National Security Adviser State Condoleezza Rice speak on the record on foreign trips, after initially doing so on background.
“But none of these examples includes any kind of organized walk-out. Reporters just don’t do that,” Condon said. “What has had some success is when the WHCA works with the White House to improve access.”
WHCA president Jeff Mason told HuffPost on Monday that the off-camera rules were an issue the group is working on. He did not respond Thursday to a request for further comment regarding the latest restrictions.
Jeff Ballou, the president of the National Press Club, said Thursday he’s “deeply disappointed in any effort that would prevent those who elected the president of the United States from seeing how their government works.”
He said his organization supports the WHCA’s efforts when it comes to advocating for White House reporters.
The struggle for the WHCA is negotiating with the current White House is that the Trump campaign shredded established norms when it comes to dealing with the press by blacklisting news organizations. As president, Trump has demonized the press as the “enemy of the people” and his White House has dismissed critical coverage as “fake news.” And Trump has recently discussed limiting briefings to once a week and having reporters submit questions in advance, according to The New York Times.
The incoherent policy on briefings comes as Spicer and Huckabee Sanders have increasingly failed to give useful answers when they do take questions.
NYU professor Jay Rosen suggested Wednesday that this “decay in communications” signals the Trump White House isn’t looking to persuade those outside of his most fervent base of supporters.
On Thursday, New York Times White House reporter Glenn Thrush suggested three reasons Trump was “shutting down” on-air briefings with the press: “there are no good answers,” “he doesn’t trust his flacks,” and of course, “Twitter.”