With the government shutdown headed for the two-week mark with no end in sight, President Donald Trump had a succinct message for the press and the nation on Thursday: Please look at me.
All the attention in Washington had been concentrated down Pennsylvania Avenue for the swearing-in of the new Congress, and especially its new Democratic House majority. As my colleagues Russell Berman and Elaine Godfrey noted earlier Thursday, the new group “will share power with a president who does not cede center stage easily.” Like clockwork, Trump decided to show them just what that meant.
Well, like creaky, late clockwork. At 4:07 p.m. eastern time, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that there would be a White House briefing at 4:10, three minutes later. The ranks of reporters at the executive mansion were thin—not only was there more action going on in Congress, but no briefing was scheduled, and White House briefings have practically become an endangered species—but those on the spot scrambled to get in place.
And then they waited, speculating about the reason for the abrupt announcement for the next 20 minutes or so, as 4:10 came and went. Finally, at nearly 4:30, Sanders came onstage, floridly introduced “our very great president, Donald J. Trump,” and got out of the way.
Thus began Trump’s first-ever visit to the briefing room, a milestone he acknowledged in his subsequent remarks. Other presidents have visited more frequently, hosting press conferences there and giving periodic updates to the nation. (Trump eschewed the customary exclamation of surprise at how much smaller the space looks in real life than on TV.) Backed by several men with clean-shaven heads, Trump stepped to the dais and said … well, not a great deal.
He congratulated the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, on her election, then launched into a set of talking points about the need for a border wall. “I’ve never had so much support than I’ve had in the last week over my stance on border security, for border control, and for, frankly, the wall or the barrier,” he said.
Then he introduced three of the men, who turned out to be Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council and a frequent Trump advocate; Art Del Cueto, a vice president of the NBPC; and Hector Garza, another vice president. Their message: A wall is necessary and important. Del Cueto, a veteran peddler of bunkum, delivered the message most eloquently and most threateningly: “You all got to ask yourself this question: If I come to your home, do you want me to knock on the front door, or do you want me to climb through that window?”
Trump then returned to the lectern, claiming that the men had been at the White House for a long-planned meeting. “It just came at a very opportune time,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s go out and see the press. You can tell them about the importance of the wall.’” The president whistled past some troubling economic indicators to say that the strong U.S. economy is attracting immigrants (true) and that high-tech tactics couldn’t replace a wall. “I think nobody knows much more about technology, this type of technology certainly, than I do,” he said falsely. “Having drones and various other forms of sensors, they’re all fine, but they are not going to stop the problems that this country has.”
Then they were all gone—Trump, Judd, Del Cueto, Garza, and Sanders, without taking a single query from the press. “The point of the briefing room is to take questions!” an anguished reporter shouted as Trump left.
But that’s begging the question, so to speak. If Trump chooses to use the briefing room to serve up reheated talking points to a hastily assembled crew of reporters, that’s the point of the briefing room. From this administration’s perspective, the media are just there to get the president’s attention. That can work: This was truly a remarkable stunt. It was also, however, an entirely superficial one. Trump can attract eyeballs, but that’s unlikely to convince the plurality of the American public who blame him for the shutdown, to grow the small portion who think the wall is an urgent priority, or to bring the shutdown any closer to resolution. Perhaps he’s saving all that for his second briefing-room visit.