What’s the point of the White House press secretary?

On Friday, Jonathan Swan and Alayna Treene reported, for Axios, that Mark Meadows—the hardline former North Carolina Congressman who just took over as President Trump’s chief of staff—was planning to replace Stephanie Grisham, the camera-shy (unless the cameras are owned by Fox) White House press secretary. It wasn’t clear, Swan and Treene wrote, if Meadows would keep Grisham in her other role, that of communications director, or seek to move her out of the comms shop entirely. Grisham told Axios that its story sounded like “palace intrigue” to her, but allowed that she’d been away from the palace recently, in quarantine. (On March 7, at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago, she was exposed to at least two individuals—including her Brazilian counterpart, Fabio Wajngarten, press secretary to Jair Bolsonaro—who later tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.) “If true,” Grisham said, of her rumored exit, “how ironic that the press secretary would hear about being replaced in the press.”

Yesterday, “if true” became “true”: CNN broke the news that Grisham was out. (She’ll stay in the White House as chief of staff to First Lady Melania Trump, whom Grisham continued to serve as a spokesperson while also working in the West Wing.) Amid a slew of harsh reviews of Grisham’s tenure, more than one headline noted that she failed to hold a single formal, on-camera briefing as press secretary. Shortly after starting in the role, last summer, Grisham won plaudits, in both conservative and mainstream media, when she physically held off North Korean officials to let reporters into a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un—but, as I (and others) noted at the time, she was likely fighting for her boss’s photo op. Her subsequent, slavish boosting of Trump’s agenda—“I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our president”—proved such fears were founded. She co-wrote an op-ed denouncing a pair of Washington Post “reporters” (scare quotes hers) for a story Trump didn’t like, yanked the press pass of Playboy correspondent Brian Karem (until a judge told her to give it back), and, in what proved to be one of her final acts in the job, intervened to grant Chanel Rion—of the reliably sycophantic One America News Network—access to Trump’s coronavirus briefings, in contravention of social-distancing measures that she’d worked with the White House Correspondents’ Association to implement. Otherwise, as the Post’s Erik Wemple wrote yesterday, she was “invisible.” Wemple and others noted that searching “Stephanie Grisham” in C-SPAN’s video library returns precisely no results. On Twitter, Keith Boykin, a CNN commentator, asked, “How do you leave a job you never did?”

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As news of Grisham’s transfer came through, White House correspondents suspected that Meadows, a media-savvy figure, was moving to bulk out the comms shop after years of neglect. He does seem to be staffing up: Alyssa Farah—a Pentagon spokesperson and longtime Meadows ally—is coming on board as director of strategic communications, with Ben Williamson, another Meadowsworld fixture, joining as a senior comms adviser. Two current White House press staffers—Judd Deere and Hogan Gidley (or “Hogan Tidley,” as he is known to Trump)—are reportedly staying put. And Kayleigh McEnany, who’s been serving as a top spokesperson for Trump’s reelection campaign, will replace Grisham as press secretary. McEnany’s past hits include claiming that Trump doesn’t lie; endorsing birtherism; scolding “President Obama” for his blasé response to the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (who died in *checks notes* 2002); and, more recently, downplaying the threat of the coronavirus. (“We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here. We will not see terrorism come here. And isn’t it refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama.”) She is, of course, a former CNN contributor.

The job of press secretary—which was first held, under Trump, by Sean Spicer, and has, somehow, only been further degraded with each handover—isn’t expected to change much under McEnany; the New York Times reported yesterday that she may “possibly… eventually” hold briefings, but that she has been hired, for now, to fight for Trump on TV. Her arrival arguably signals an end to the fiction that there’s a difference between the Trump administration and the Trump campaign. For the time being, at least, McEnany isn’t needed behind the podium because Trump has lodged himself there—hosting daily coronavirus briefings that compensate for his inability to hold campaign rallies, and that networks, for some reason, continue to carry live. Even if McEnany does come to supplement, or to inherit, her boss’s daily presence, the core function of the briefing—allowing journalists to pick questions of their choice and put them to power with the cameras rolling, in the hope of a good-faith answer—looks dead and buried.

In the age of Trump, is there any point to the job? On occasion, reporters in Washington have testified to having working relationships (off-camera, at least) with Trump-era press secretaries. (When Sarah Huckabee Sanders left the role last year, some White House correspondents threw her a farewell party that Amanda Darrach memorably captured for CJR.) That, however, is only one part of the role—and a transactional one, whose currencies elude the broader public that a good press secretary aims, primarily, to serve. Earlier this year, Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at the Post, argued that Grisham was not the worst press secretary ever—because she didn’t actually do the job at all, or at least not the important bits. Trump does those himself.

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Below, more on the coronavirus:

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s new magazine on coverage of the climate crisis, Betsy Hartmann assesses the media impact of the Tanton network, a constellation of groups that blame ecological harm on migration. “To guarantee close and continuous scrutiny of the network, why not assign reporters to a ‘Tanton beat’?” Hartmann suggests. “We must correct this narrative rather than giving disinformation a platform.” Also for the issue, Karlotta Freier illustrates horrifying climate news stories, including flooding in Florida and trash on Mount Everest.
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  • Doug Markowitz, a former staffer at the alt-weekly chain Voice Media Group, wrote on Twitter that he’s no longer able even to contribute to Voice titles because the group is “enforcing its policy of not accepting freelance submissions from writers who have been terminated from full-time employment.” The Voice Media Guild said the policy would “cut off unemployed writers from their closest editorial contacts when they need them most.”
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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.