It may now seem quaint, but there was a time in recent history when White House press secretaries played a dual role: protecting the president’s image and advocating for the interests of a free press. The very layout of the West Wing suggests that’s the way it’s supposed to be. When they leave their office through the back door, press secretaries stand in a hallway equidistant from the Oval Office and the press-briefing room.
The geography symbolizes the balancing act a good press secretary must perform, says Mike McCurry, who held the job under former President Bill Clinton. “The press secretary has the job, internally, of being a whisperer for the White House press corps,” he told me. “Someone inside needs to defend the interests of a free, vigorous press, even when it is uncomfortable and even when you know you will probably lose the argument.”
These days, no one seems to be making the argument. The press secretary’s role has withered under successive presidents and, in the Donald Trump era, has been functionally obliterated. Sarah Sanders, whose resignation the president announced yesterday, operated primarily as a garden-variety senior adviser, much like her predecessor Sean Spicer. Obligations to the press and, through it, the American people have been abandoned. Trump will eventually appoint someone to replace Sanders. But whoever comes in stands to be the latest caretaker of a job that exists in name only.
It would be easy to argue that Trump degraded the press-secretary position. The president has scorned the press, calling it the “enemy of the people” and subjecting individual reporters to personal abuse. But this has been building for some time. After serving as President George W. Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan wrote a book called What Happened, in which he described himself as an unwitting tool for the dissemination of White House deceptions. Writing about his role in falsely denying that White House officials had been involved in outing the covert CIA official Valerie Plame, McClellan said: “I had allowed myself to be deceived into unknowingly passing along a falsehood. It would ultimately prove fatal to my ability to serve the president.”
“Go out there and tell them nothing,” Bush once advised his first press secretary, Ari Fleischer, before a press briefing.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, press secretaries dutifully held regular news briefings, but they amounted to a regurgitation of preapproved talking points. Even that has fallen away in Trump’s White House. Nearly 100 days have passed since Sanders gave her last official briefing in the White House pressroom. Her practice has instead been to talk with reporters informally on the White House driveway as she returns to the building from TV interviews with Fox News and other networks.
In a case of the coach calling his own number, Trump has often tagged in for his press secretary, taking on the role of fielding day-to-day questions from the media. Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential scholar and Towson University professor emeritus, says that, at this point in his term, Trump has held 419 short Q&A sessions with reporters—more than five times the number Obama held at a comparable point in his presidency. Trump, Kumar told me, “wants to be the person who communicates what he is thinking. He’s doing that through Twitter and he’s doing it with his short Q&As. He wants to be his own communications director and his own press secretary.”
After her departure was announced by Trump in two tweets, Sanders spoke with reporters in her office, telling them that it’s more important for Americans to “hear from him and his voice than to hear from me and mine. No one elected me to anything.” Not yet, anyway. Sanders is moving back home to Arkansas, and isn’t ruling out a run for governor—a job once held by her father, Mike Huckabee, and for which Trump has already endorsed her run.
With no obligation to hold press briefings—a time-consuming process that involves hours of daily preparation with White House officials—what would Trump’s next press secretary actually do? Over time, Sanders became one of the president’s fiercest defenders; it’s fair to assume that Trump would expect similar loyalty from the next person to hold the job.
In one memorable exchange at the White House in August, the CNN correspondent Jim Acosta invited Sanders to repudiate Trump’s contention that the press is the “enemy of the people.” She wouldn’t do it. “I’m here to speak on behalf of the president,” she said, “and he’s made his comments clear.” Joe Lockhart, another former Clinton press secretary, told me that she “played a huge role in demonizing the press as the enemy of the people.”
Trump pulled Sanders into his inner circle and came to rely on her counsel. At a summit meeting last year in Singapore with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump complained privately to aides about all the TV attention paid to Kim’s unexpected walking tour downtown. Trump worried that the press coverage might give Kim an edge in the negotiations. He told aides that he wanted his handshake greeting with Kim moved up so that the networks would stop airing the footage, a former White House official told me yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal conversations. Changing the timing of the handshake posed logistical difficulties, and top aides, including then–Chief of Staff John Kelly, tried to talk the president out of it.
Trump dug in—until he heard from Sanders. She told him that if they altered the timing, the historic greeting would not unfold in prime time back in the United States, the official said.
Don’t give up that coveted prime-time slot, she told him. Trump relented.
“She thinks the world of him,” the ex-official said. “She understood her role as that of an adviser, supporter, and confidante, and his as the president who made the decisions. She’s very respectful to him.”
Once Trump leaves the scene, will the press secretary’s traditional role be revived? It’s possible that the norm-shattering 45th president may have killed off the job for good. Past presidents disliked the press and tried to manipulate the media, but they recognized that accommodating reporters as best they could was in their interest. In his book Washington, the author Ron Chernow wrote that in 1792 the nation’s first president complained that newspaper coverage was “an evil which must be placed in opposition to the infinite benefits resulting from a free press.” Nearly two centuries later, former Democratic President Jimmy Carter wrote in his memoirs about a meeting with advisers in which they told him that relations with the press corps were “especially bad” and “unlikely to improve.” They cautioned, though, that “I could not win a war with the press.”
In the social-media era, presidents may conclude that they can indeed win that war. They may see no reason to empower press secretaries with divided loyalties. Presidents now have abundant new tools to marginalize the press and present themselves in the most favorable light. Obama’s White House would limit press access to the president and instead distribute official photos that professional news photographers likened to propaganda. Trump’s Twitter and Facebook audience numbers in the tens of millions, giving him a megaphone outstripping that of many news outlets.
The title may live on; the cozy West Wing office with the fireplace may endure. But when future press secretaries exit through that back door, their attention is likely to be firmly fixed on the Oval Office to their right—not the press-briefing room to their left.
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