Has Donald Trump Killed The Presidential Press Conference? It Sure Seems Like It

It's been 441 days since Donald Trump held a full-fledged Presidential press conference. Does anyone care?

The last time that President Trump held a full-fledged press conference was 441 days ago, just 28 days into his Presidency. Not surprisingly, it made headlines that lasted for days, but not for reasons that were generally favorable to the Administration. Since then, Trump has made himself available to the press only in tightly controlled situations, choosing instead to address the public directly via his Twitter feed and the campaign-style rallies that he has continued to hold even after winning the 2016 election. On several occasions, reporters have asked when we might see another press conference only to be rebuffed by the White House. This has led many to conclude that we may be witnessing the death of the Presidential press conference:

The presidential news conference, a time-honored tradition going back generations, appears to be no longer.

More than a year has passed since President Donald Trump held the only solo news conference of his administration — a rollicking, hastily arranged, 77-minute free-for-all during which he railed against the media, defended his fired national security adviser and insisted nobody who advised his campaign had had contacts with Russia.

But there are no signs the White House press shop is interested in a second go-round. Instead, the president engages the press in more informal settings that aides say offer reporters far more access, more often, than past administrations.

“President Trump is more accessible than most modern presidents and frequently takes questions from the press,” says White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The president often answers shouted questions at so-called pool sprays, in which a small group of rotating reporters is given access to events such as bill signings and Cabinet lunches. Trump has also taken to answering shouted questions on the White House lawn as he arrives at and departs the White House.

The frenzied exchanges — frequently taking place over the roar of Marine One’s rotor — often produce news.

But the format also gives the president far more control than he would have during a traditional question-and-answer session. Trump can easily ignore questions he doesn’t like and dodge follow-ups in a way that would be glaring in a traditional news conference.

On Friday, for instance, Trump answered several questions in the Oval Office about North Korea and Iran. But when a reporter asked about his threats regarding intervening in the Justice Department, Trump responded with a curt “thank you” that signaled to reporters that he was done with the Q&A session.

The president also holds joint news conferences with visiting world leaders, a format reporters call “two and two” because each leader selects two of its country’s reporters to ask questions. While the format looks similar to a solo news conference, the president more often than not calls on friendly reporters from conservative outlets and limits the opportunity for follow-up questions.

On Friday, during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump called on reporters from Fox Business Network and the Christian Broadcasting Network. Fox News correspondent John Roberts has been called on so often that Trump once picked him and then changed his mind. “Actually, we’ll go somebody else this time, John. You’ve been doing enough, John,” he said to laughs.

Trump also submits to occasional one-on-one interviews with individual news outlets. Last week, he called in to “Fox & Friends,” his favored format during the campaign. And several times he has held longer, impromptu question-and-answer sessions, including one in the Rose Garden with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that, for reporters, had the feel of a mosh pit.

Margaret Talev, a longtime White House reporter and president of the White House Correspondents Association, said the association welcomes Trump’s “openness to engage on a regular basis, in pool sprays in the Oval Office and less traditional settings such as South Lawn departures.”

But, she said, “We have been disappointed at his reluctance to engage in regular full-format news conferences and we will continue to encourage him and his team to return to the practice. Such news conferences help the public to gain a deeper understanding of a president’s thinking on an issue; show transparency and accountability; allow journalists to raise questions the public may be concerned about; and also allow a president to shape his message.”

Indeed, during his campaign, Trump often criticized his rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, for failing to engage more with the press.

“Crooked Hillary Clinton has not held a news conference in more than 7 months. Her record is so bad she is unable to answer tough questions!” he tweeted in June 2016.

Trump’s lack of press conferences is certainly a break with past Presidents. Barack Obama, for example, held seven full-fledged press conferences during his first year in office, while George W. Bush held four. President Clinton held eleven press conferences during his first year in office, Ronald Reagan held six, Richard Nixon also held six, and even Gerald Ford held four such press conferences. The two leaders of the pack are Jimmy Carter, who held twenty-two press conferences during his first year in office and George H.W. Bush, who held twenty-seven such conferences. (Source) Several of these Presidents became less generous with their time as their Presidencies went on, but the point nonetheless remains that Donald Trump is lagging far behind his predecessors when it comes to freely making themselves available to the press. Additionally, since the Obama years Presidents have also looked for ways to get their message beyond the White House Press Corps. For Obama, that consisted of granting frequent interviews with local media in key states throughout the country. This was a strategy that the Obama White House used quite effectively, for example, in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election. As a general rule, though, these Presidents largely continued the practice of being rather generous with the Presidents time when it came to press access.

Under the Trump Administration, that practice seems to be coming to an end. Not only have we seen the apparent end of the Presidential press conference, but there have been substantial changes to the White House Daily Press Briefing. For a significant amount of time last year, for example, the press office declined to hold full on-camera briefings and instead opted for off-camera “gaggles” or even skipped any briefings altogether for days in a row. That has changed somewhat since Sarah Huckabee Sanders became Press Secretary last summer, but it’s still the case that the briefings that Sanders gives are substantially shorter than those that previous White House Press Secretaries and she often makes it difficult for journalists from mainstream press organizations to ask question by making the briefings even shorter due to opening statements from Cabinet officials about some initiative or another or by calling on reporters from more obscure press organizations. While there’s nothing per se wrong with the second practice, and the White House is arguably to be complimented for opening up access to the Press Corps, dodging questions from reporters who have hard questions to ask is hardly an example of transparency.

At this rate, it’s not clear when, or if, Trump will ever hold another full-fledged press conference but I’m willing to bet we’ll be back here in 365 days without Trump having held such a meeting with the press.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Media, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    I think that, like the presidency itself, the presidential press conference is on hibernation. Once a president is back at the White House, hopefully things will change.




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  2. Franklin says:

    Uh, he’s obviously busy MAGA’ing. (Or dictating doctor’s notes or yelling at the TV.)




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  3. mattbernius says:

    Who else remembers the halcyon days of the 2016 Campaign when Trump (and his supporters in these comment threads) made a repeated comments about how Hillary Clinton was afraid of the press because she had not held a press conference?

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/10/06/71-times-donald-trump-and-his-team-criticized-hillary-clinton-for-not-holding-a-press-conference




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  4. al-Ameda says:

    Oh, I think the Press Conference will be back as soon as Trump is sent back to Mar-A-Lago or Moscow, but future presidents will definitely feel less an obligation to hold these than ever before. (The same will hold true for releasing tax returns, Trump blew that one up, it will be hard for conservatives to demand that of any liberal)

    I recall how many people thought that Barack Obama would be a ‘transformational’ president. But actually, while the election of Obama was historical, Obama did not come to the office as a radical politician, with an agenda of active and constant change. He was, and is, by temperament a cool calm and moderate person in style and in action.

    Trump, on the other hand, is transformational. He aggressively refuses to do anything ‘normally.’ He is unthoughtful, impulsive, and dismissive of rules and structure. Trump is the unlikely avatar of a radical Right wing movement – the radical Right wants the system torn down and Trump is temperamentally the perfect president for this, He prides himself on being a disruptive force. He is all of that.




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  5. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    It’s the interview with Lester Holt…that’s the last time Dennison subjected himself to unbiased interviews or questions. Clearly his staff, incompetent as it is, is still smart enough to know that no good would come from a press conference. Look at his appearance on Fox and Friends last week…that was a friendly venue and he still upended his entire legal strategy vis-a-vis Cohen and Stormy Daniels.
    No…if you work for Dennison there is no way you let him loose in from of actual journalists.




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  6. michael reynolds says:

    Trump is too stupid to handle a press conference. If he were clever enough to manage it I suspect he’d enjoy the strutting and yelling and lying part. It’s the answering questions part he can’t handle.




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  7. @michael reynolds:

    Given how the press conference in February 2017 went, I can understand why his people would want him to avoid an open-ended press conference.




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  8. Pylon says:

    @mattbernius:

    Trump criticized Hilary for not having press conferences and Obama for golfing too much.

    Trump also criticized: attacking Syria without congressional approval (and also just because it was “bad”; Obama not disclosing WH visitors; Obama blaming Congress for not working with him; having staffers who sought FBI immunity; Obama allegedly not reading his intelligence briefings (!)….




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  9. mattbernius says:

    @michael reynolds & @Doug Mataconis:
    It is worth noting that Candidate Trump did hold a number of conferences when he ran. Of course, at the time, he had no real “record” to speak of. It’s easy to see why Trump would want to avoid having to actively answer questions now that he’s actually in the position of having to actually follow through on all of those campaign positions.

    And heck, we don’t even need to look at the 2/2017 press conference to know what a disaster an open press conference would be. Remember just a week ago to his live performance on Fox and Friends? If that’s how he handles a friendly audience of non-journalists, I shudder to think about how he would do at this point against an adversarial press corp.




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  10. mattbernius says:

    @Pylon:
    Funny, there seems to be a pattern there…




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  11. Kathy says:

    Say what you want about reporters, but most of them do know the subject they’re covering. Therefore the Orange Clown can’t just lie about facts in a press conference and have the falsehood du jour uncritically swallowed.




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  12. mattbernius says:

    @Pylon:
    Funny, there seems to be a pattern emerging there…




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  13. de stijl says:

    “Drain The Swamp” was a reach goal.




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  14. James Pearce says:

    I’m fine with Trump killing the presidential press conference. Reporters should be too. There are better uses of their time than transcribing and inviting lies and other bullshit, which is all they’re going to get from a Trump press conference.




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  15. de stijl says:

    @de stijl:

    That whole swamp thing and that draining verb – let’s just say it should be construed as amorphous.

    We have no actual plans to shame career appointees as individuals, but we will do so as a class, because it sort of feels like we should. We will cull them at the first opportunity, though.

    They are the “The Swamp” and we are the “Mr. Clean” with the swamp-draining reverse suction vacuum cleaner…

    Crap, this isn’t working right. God-dammit, this is a carpet vacuum, not a bad-ass shop vacuum! Idjits!




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  16. al-Ameda says:

    @de stijl:

    “Drain The Swamp” was a reach goal.

    Trump is refilling the swamp.
    His slogan should have been: “I’ve got your swamp right here”




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  17. Yank says:

    The press conferences will be back when a competent person occupies the WH. Trump gets away with this because the media knows he is dumb, so he is graded on a curve.




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  18. JKB says:

    It’s the 21st century. Filtering the President through a bunch of loser “journalists” is no longer necessary as he can speak directly to the People at any moment. I suppose those who seek to preen could dust off their investigative skills and do some real reporting.

    “a free press is a blessing, a licentious press is a curse.”




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  19. Franklin says:

    @JKB: Who do you propose should get him to answer pertinent questions as opposed to making a campaign speech?




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  20. Tyrell says:

    Some presidents talked too much. Some not enough (Coolidge, Grant). Trump needs to talk more, and does better in one on one or small group situations.
    I enjoyed the conferences of Johnson, Kennedy, and Carter. I also was fascinated by McNamara’s press briefings.




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