Since his days as a flashy Manhattan real estate player, Donald Trump has always preferred to serve as his own press secretary.
But his attempts to continue doing so as president of the United States are undermining the communications staffers whose day job it is to go out and explain his actions – and in turn are changing the purpose of the daily press briefing.
In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt on Thursday, Trump said he decided to fire his FBI Director, James Comey, in part because he saw him as a “showboat,” in part because he had grown sick of the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’” Trump said. “It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”
His version of events not only contradicted Vice President Mike Pence, who said Comey’s abrupt firing was based on the recommendation of the Attorney General’s office – it also undermined the staffers who stood behind the lectern and on Wednesday read out to reporters an inaccurate timeline of events.
It was not the first time that Trump staffers standing behind the podium have given out false information – that practice started on Day One, when Spicer set the tenor for his tenure in the briefing room by stating, falsely, that Trump had “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”
But the Comey contradictions raised questions about the purpose of pressing White House aides for information when the only person in the building who appears to have access to the full, and often changing, White House story is the president himself.
“It has become a forum for exposing the absurdity and falseness of claims made by the president,” said Brian Fallon, a former Justice Department spokesman who served as press secretary to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “When Spicer and Sanders are confronted with inconsistencies and unable to square them, it disrupts the alternative reality Trump tries to create and upholds objective truth, which is the press corps’ job.”
In the past, the job of reporters in the briefing room was to hold the White House accountable by getting government officials to explain themselves on the record. The exercise in Trump’s administration, Fallon said, has been changed because of the “daily trainwrecks of the spokesman caught in a lie.”
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary under President George W. Bush, was more forgiving. While the tensions between Trump’s communications shop and the press are heightened, he said, there is a history of press secretaries being kept in the dark – sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident.
“This isn’t the first and won’t be the last White House in which there’s a disconnect between the president and the briefers,” Fleischer said. He recalled giving reporters inaccurate information about whether Air Force One had been struck by lightning — he told reporters the plane had not been struck, and was forced to correct himself the next day.
Dee Dee Myers, a press secretary who served under President Bill Clinton, was famously misled by senior national security advisers about a secret 1993 missile strike on Baghdad. She assured reporters that the president had not received a final FBI report that concluded that the Iraqis were involved in an assassination plot against George H. W. Bush. In fact, Clinton had ordered the strike just before she took the podium. “She didn’t know because we didn’t tell her,” a Clinton official told the New York Times after the fact. “We didn’t tell a lot of people.”
In Myers’ case, the need for secrecy surrounding the mission trumped the importance of the administration appearing to be candid. For Trump’s spin masters, however, the need to play to the audience of one – the television-obsessed president – often overrides the need to be seen by the reporters as a reliable source of accurate information.
But in Trump’s White House, the disconnect between what the president is thinking or doing, and what his aides proclaim from the podium has become a major chasm. Trump often overrides the news from his own Twitter feed, or in his own comments in interviews.
“Sometimes when things are swirling fast, press secretaries go to the podium and either they don’t have all the information, or the information changed,” Fleischer said, in defense of the whiplash of information from the White House about how and when the decision was made to fire Comey.
“It was all him,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Wednesday night, referring not to the president, but to deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote the memo the White House initially said triggered Comey’s ouster.
While Spicer was out on naval reserve duty, his deputy, Sarah Sanders, repeated that inaccurate version of events – until Thursday, when she had to admit she had been flying without a safety net.
“We were absolutely given the information that we could have at that time,” Sanders conceded. “It was a quick moving process.” She added: “I hadn’t had a chance to have the conversation directly with the president…I went off of the information that I had.”
On Friday morning, Trump addressed the disconnect himself, floating the idea of canceling the daily briefing all together. “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” he tweeted. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”
He’s not the first president to consider getting rid of the daily ritual all together. President Richard Nixon, Time Magazine reported, toyed with the idea of not having a press secretary.
But Fleischer said that would hurt both the White House and the fourth estate.
“Sometimes it’s a total mess, but more often the briefing is helpful to both sides,” he said. “The White House can get its points across, allies of the president watch the briefing can hone in on what the message is, and the press is well served because they get to put somebody on the record and that serves the country.”
For its part, the White House Correspondents’ Association agrees.
“Doing away with briefings would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned,” said WHCA president Jeff Mason.