BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump has left American journalists in the dark during key moments of his nine-day foreign trip, delaying readouts, keeping reporters at a distance and not holding news conferences — which has allowed him to avoid having to answer to controversies at home.
The moves have continued a pattern established over the first months of his administration.
Trump attended a meeting with European Union leaders at the EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday without bringing members of his press team, unlike his peers, whose spokespeople turned out formal statements within minutes of the meeting’s conclusion.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders were spotted sitting at a cafe near the EU building during the meeting.
Sanders later told POLITICO that responsibility for the meeting had been passed on to the National Security Council communications team. The White House press office issued a statement hours after the meeting concluded.
Trump has so far not held any news conferences on the trip, which is unusual for such a tour. It’s not clear whether he’ll take questions in Sicily, the final stop of the trip, where he’s scheduled to attend a meeting of G7 leaders.
Ari Fleischer, who was press secretary for George W. Bush, said his team never went through an entire foreign trip without a presidential news conference.
“It’s highly unusual for a president, but it’s highly disciplined for Donald Trump,” Fleischer said.
“Trump needed a break from a domestic downward spiral he was in when he left the United States and the substance of this trip and the good reception he’s receiving is giving him that break,” Fleischer added. “If he would have held press conferences, he would have competed against the messages he wanted to send.”
Alex Conant, who also served as a press aide under Bush, concurred. “Clearly, the White House made a strategic decision to limit the number of things that could go wrong on this trip, and a press conference on foreign soil is always a risky proposition,” Conant said.
Earlier in the trip, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — who declined to take reporters on his first foreign trip to Asia in March—held an impromptu on-the-record news conference with Saudi journalists, but White House staff failed to invite American reporters traveling with the president to the event.
On Thursday, the traveling U.S. press pool was shut out of Trump’s arrival and introductions with EU leaders, though live footage from the introductions was streamed online on an EU website. Official photographers for the EU and the White House were allowed in.
That episode echoed the White House decision to allow official White House and Russian photographers but not White House pool journalists to witness the president’s meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office earlier this month. White House officials subsequently said they were surprised when photographs of the meeting were first circulated on the Russian news service TASS.
The president has been considering a shakeup of his communications staff, with Spicer expected to take a lower-profile role once he returns to Washington. On the trip, he’s mainly handed off briefing responsibilities to other officials, though he briefed reporters Thursday evening on Trump’s dinner with NATO leaders.