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100 days of silence: How Trump may have damaged the role of White House press secretary for good

Chris Stevenson

For any president, 100-day milestones are important. An administration with fresh impetus can achieve more during the first three months in the White House than at any other time.

But Donald Trump has hit an altogether more unwanted 100 mark, one that has vast implications for the press, the public and his own officials. We are now into the 100th day since the last formal daily briefing by the White House press secretary.

On-camera briefings began in 1995 and Trump’s administration already held the record for most days without one – set at 42, before the last briefing on 11 March.

That one ended with press secretary Sarah Sanders taking questions for a mere 14 minutes, something that Joe Lockhart, Bill Clinton’s White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000, says shows the Trump administration’s “abdication” of its duty to the country.

“The press secretary is the one person in the building that on a daily basis knows they work for the public,” Lockhart says. “[You] go out there every day and answer hard questions or rude questions because the public have a right to know and it is a big part of how our democratic system is supposed to work.

“This White House has just abdicated that responsibility”.

With Sarah Sanders having resigned her position, what now for a job that has become much-maligned? Even if the position has been integral to the White House since it was created in 1929, Lockhart worries that Mr Trump has set a precedent that others could follow.

“I think the role has really suffered a lot of damage,” he says. It is certainly easier for the White House not to do the briefings because it leaves someone exposed there every day.

“Politics is a game of imitation – whatever worked for someone last time, we may see the next person try it.”

He knows what he is talking about – not only does 1998 hold the record for the most daily White House briefings in a year, Lockhart was also the incumbent who had to deal with President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

“No matter how hard it gets, if you don’t go out there you have raised the white flag and then the press decides every day what the narrative is,” he says.

For Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the non-profit White House Transition Project and emeritus professor in the department of political science at Towson University, Maryland, the nonchalance for the press secretary’s office will continue as long as President Trump is in office.

“What’s really different here is the president – because he sees himself as the communicator, essentially the press secretary to communications chief,” she says. “That is why you have had the turnover you have.”

With speculation that Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, or former state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert – whom Trump had said he wanted to take a role at the UN – could be handed the reins after Sanders, it is clear that the way the president deals with the press is unlikely to change.

Both Kumar, who has been tracking White House press secretaries since 1975, and Lockhart agree that the job of press secretary goes beyond pleasing the president. They act as protection for the Oval Office and should be able to jump on problems before they get out of hand and clarify the message from the White House. The press briefings also provide an opportunity to get the presidential message out about what different departments are doing.

For a president with “no impulse control”, Lockhart says, and in an “era of social media where there is so much fake information out there”, it makes the press secretary job more important.

He believes that both Sarah Sanders and predecessor Sean Spicer have been “unable to control the narrative”, particularly around Robert Mueller’s Russia report and the question of whether Trump deserves impeachment over potentially obstructing that investigation.

Not using the briefing room podium has meant the media have filled the silence with the president’s angry and false tweets instead. Lockhart says there is value in the president tweeting, but pushing other news, like he did amid the impeachment scandal in 1998 and 1999, helps the president.

“We took the shots and there were lots of days where nothing broke through [into the news cycle] but there were days when many things broke through,” Lockhart says.

The public, reporters and White House all rely on an attitude of mutual trust to ensure information is correct, and that is not there at the moment. The briefings, according to Mr Lockhart, “create a historical record of when the White House has not been truthful and when they don’t give answers” and the public needs that.

Lockhart also gives the example of the recent leaking of internal White House polling into where Trump stands in relation to his Democrat rivals ahead of the 2020 election.

“It is a perfect example of a story that has hung around for days when it should have been a one-day story,” he says. “The simple answer is: ‘We don’t discuss our internal polls and we are very confident the president is going to win re-election.’” Without a platform to formally move the story on, Mr Trump’s tweets have kept it alive.

Another aspect that Trump has changed is the fact he does more short Q&A sessions outside the White House ahead of trips – more than 400 according to Kumar, having tweeted in January that he told Sanders “not to bother” with the televised briefings.

“I think the short Q&As give him a chance to keep him in the news all the time,” Kumar says. “Other presidents thought the public would get sick of them appearing so Trump may have changed the notion of that.”

But Lockhart – who says he only remembers heading to the driveway for such a briefing once – says that by doing so, Mr Trump puts reporters on the back foot meaning they cannot always ask the questions they need to.

“People don’t have notice that it is happening, they take it live. It is a way of putting the media at their worst place and getting them to scramble there, and that is what it is designed for.”

Both Lockhart and Kumar would like to see the daily press briefings return, with the former Clinton press secretary saying it allows reporters to “ask the questions that need to be asked” of the administration.

Indeed, alongside his Words Matter podcast Lockhart has started tweeting a “shadow briefing” detailing the questions he believes the White House needs to be asked but currently is not.

Even Spicer, who attracted 4.3 million viewers at his peak for the daily press briefings in early 2017, says he thinks they should return, although not every day.

“Figure out a way to mix them in,” Spicer told VOA earlier this week. He characterises the briefings in the Trump administration as devolving into “media circuses where it’s been a yell fest, where it’s been an opportunity for someone to get up and showboat”.

Spicer says three to five hours would go into preparing each briefing, which Kumar has said used to make up the bulk of the day. She suggests if the White House does not bring back the briefing that time could be known as “press secretary time” aping Mr Trump’s “executive time”, where he tweets and watches cable news networks.

Lockhart is hopeful that if Trump does not bring back the briefing, the next president does reinstate the “powerful tool” – particularly if the press secretary tells the truth. Although he says he would even want them back if whoever Trump picks next continues to lie.

Taking California senator Kamala Harris as a random example from the Democrats looking to become president in 2020, Lockhart says it would be in the next president’s interest to restore the credibility of the role to help get their message and philosophy out.

“[Harris] won’t be able to control the narrative like Trump does,” he says. “Because she is a responsible intelligent human being who is not going to tweet out garbage every day.”

Joe Lockhart’s Verdict On:

Sean Spicer: “Sean tried to straddle the line between being a traditional press secretary and being Trump’s. It’s not possible and it killed him.”

Anthony Scaramucci: “Scaramucci was a bad joke the president played on the country. Talk about out of his depth.”

Sarah Sanders: “She was the president’s personal publicist, not the press secretary for the American public.”