Donald Trump and the press corps have had a stormy relationship this year. Trump hates the media, and reporters distrusts Trump. (I wonder why?) But the two warring factions have found common cause in critiquing Hillary Clinton for not holding press conferences.
Trump, in perhaps one of the more clever steps in a campaign prone to wrongfooting, has begun sending out daily or near daily emails pointing out how long it’s been since the Democratic candidate gave a press conference. That’s 272 days if you’re keeping score at home, which you should not do, because Philip Bump built a widget to do that:
Complaints about this have bubbled up from the start of the campaign, in early June, for instance. Then they get eclipsed by some other story, usually a splashy Trump comment. On Thursday, Clinton’s running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, stepped right into another round. On CBS’s This Morning, Kaine said Trump “didn’t have the guts to look the Mexican president in the eye and bring up the central position in the campaign,” i.e., who would pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border.
Trump did at least take a few questions from reporters in Mexico City. Why, then, was Clinton not giving more press conferences?
“You see Hillary take questions from reporters every day,” Kaine said. “She talks to the press everywhere she goes.” He immediately got push back from the hosts. “Really?” Kelly O’Donnell asked.
“I don’t see what the massive difference is between a press conference and talking to the press wherever you go,” Kaine replied. But many reporters, especially those who spend their time on the trail with Clinton, begged to disagree.
Clinton has also not yet set up a “protective pool,” a crew of reporters who travel with her on her campaign plane, which is typical. The Clinton team cited the fact that Trump didn’t have one either as a reason for the lag, but then Trump announced a pool. (It isn’t going totally smoothly: The designated pool reporter on Wednesday didn’t have a passport handy for Trump’s trip to Mexico, due to a last-minute announcement, and the campaign wouldn’t provide transportation for a fill-in.) Kaine said Thursday that a pool is coming as soon as next week.
The lack of a pool, or going this long without a press conference, would be notable for any candidate, but they stand out in particular with Clinton, who has developed a reputation for secrecy. In fact, her refusal to hold a press conference and the continuing series of damaging stories about her private email address and server are locked in a feedback loop: The system look like it was designed in part to avoid the prying eyes of the press; the press can’t ask questions about it during a press conference; and that just reinforces the idea that there’s something being hidden, and something to hide.
As for the press conferences, let’s look at Clinton’s defenses. The first is that she talks to reporters all the time. Clinton does give interviews, though not as many as Trump; the Clinton campaign tallied 350 this year alone. But they tend to be carefully chosen sit-downs with a single journalist—Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Andrea Mitchell; not with a journalist at all, as David Folkenflik noted; or extremely brief. Speaking to local media is a favorite strategy, turned into art by President Obama. It gives a politician valuable face time but guarantees a greater focus on topics of local interest, rather than the thorny, broader questions a national reporter might ask. (Of course, national reporters have been known to ask some boneheaded, baffling, or just boring questions when given their shot.)
The second is that she should get credit for town-hall meetings and for an appearance to the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She did take some questions from reporters there, but these settings are both somewhat more controlled than a press conference: It’s a formal setting, with rules of decorum and few chances for follow-ups and the like. One of the few reporters who did get a question in at the NABJ/NAHJ conference, The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe, took a moment to press her and was met with applause: “Thank you for being here. And I think on behalf of all of us, we encourage you to do this more often with reporters across the country. Especially those news organizations that travel the country with you everywhere you go.” The time for questions there was also reportedly halved.
These occasions where Clinton takes a few questions, of which there have been a few though not a slew, are different from a full-fledged press conference, which, like porn, is tough to define but known when seen. These are short availabilities, and they tend to press reporters toward questions about the events where they take place. A typical press conference, with a room full of reporters all eager to break news and outdo their colleagues, is a fearsome thing, liable to head into unpredictable directions and reveal new and important information about a candidate. One out-of-left-field question, or one particularly sharp one, can send things spiraling off course. To see how a press conference can cause trouble, look no further than the presser Clinton gave in March 2015, in which she came across as defensive about her email server—for good reason, as it turns out.
Clinton also has a famously icy relationship with the press. But as Jack Shafer wrote in July, she generally performs strongly when forced to give in and do a presser:
The secretary’s press conference phobia would make sense if she were bad at answering questions. But she’s extremely good. You might not like her politics or the way she expresses them, but she has proved herself a competent rhetorician in the 2016 and 2008 presidential campaign debates, fielding questions and answering them competently. Likewise, she answered scores of tough, hostile and leading questions during the Benghazi hearings, exhibiting professionalism and occasional humor.
There’s one additional reason for reticence these days: The Clinton campaign spent much of August in semi-hibernation, figuring that it was better to let Donald Trump make his own life miserable and stay out of the way than risk distracting from it. That’s one more reason not to make news with a press conference. That might (or might not) be good strategy, but since the role of reporters is to ask questions and hold leaders accountable, the political wisdom is neither here nor there.
Anyway, none of this is new. My colleague Clare Foran wrote about much of it just a couple weeks ago. The question now is whether this time is different, and whether the drumbeat will become enough to force her hand. One strain of debate has juxtaposed whether Trump should release his tax returns with whether Clinton should give a press conference, which is of course a false binary. From the standpoint of the press, and anyone who believes transparency and accountability are important, the answer to both is yes, but neither is dependent on the other.
It might be harder to force Trump to release his tax returns, especially if he believes he is unlikely to win. If there really is something damaging in the returns, it won’t help to release them, and it might be damaging in the long run, so why bother? Clinton might have something to lose if the public pressure goes on. The advent of a protective pool, if true, is good news for people who think that politicians ought to sometimes face questions from an engaged and intelligent press, but one that falls short of giving a press conference.
Can the media keep the pressure on? That depends in part on whether Trump manages to avoid creating distractions. Or just as he did with the protective pool, he could try to shame her by releasing his tax returns. Just an idea.
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