The new WH press strategy: insults, MAGA rallies, & monthly briefings

Monday provided an illustration of the White House’s evolved communications strategy. Just before noon, President Trump appeared in the Rose Garden to announce a new trade deal, and took questions from reporters. By evening, the president was in Johnson City, Tennessee, holding a campaign-style rally. There was no “daily” press briefing, just as there hadn’t been for 29 of September’s 30 days.

At that Rose Garden press conference, Trump complained about questions that weren’t focused on trade and insulted ABC News’s Cecilia Vega after calling on her. “She’s shocked that I picked her. Like in a state of shock,” Trump said. “I’m not, thank you, Mr. President,” Vega began. Trump then interrupted her to add, “That’s OK. I know you’re not thinking, you never do.” After a brief moment of surprise, Vega took the comment in stride and asked about the scope of the investigation into Brett Kavanaugh’s past. Trump’s comment was jarring, but what was more concerning than the childish insult was that he deflected questions about anything other than the trade deal he was there to promote. (Later in the press conference, Trump did call for a “comprehensive” FBI investigation.)

“A news conference means you get to ask whatever question you want to ask,” Vega tweeted after the event, but the problem with Trump’s regular press availabilities—at pool sprays, walks to Marine One, and announcements like Monday’s—is that Trump can choose which questions to answer and when he wants to talk. The absence of Press Secretary Sarah Sanders from the briefing room means that reporters are left relying on the president’s whims, and often lack the opportunity to get an administration official on the record to respond to the news of the day.

TRENDING: Did you notice many similar images of Kavanaugh angry during his hearing? There’s a reason why.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

In Tennessee, Trump spent an hour taking aim at his regular list of targets: prospective Democratic presidential candidates, immigrants, and the media. “Fighting the media is tougher than fighting the Democrats,” he said at one point. “But they’re equal partners.” Trump has three more rallies scheduled this week, and Sanders doesn’t brief on days when the president speaks publicly, so this, it seems, is the new normal for the White House comms shop. As New York Times White House correspondent Katie Rogers tweeted: “Prediction: Freewheeling presser by day, MAGA rally by night, every day forever until we are all dead.”

The shift in the administration’s press strategy, featuring more Trump and fewer briefings, coincided with the arrival of former Fox News executive Bill Shine to the White House. Shine was hired as deputy chief of staff for communications in early July, and Sanders has held only eight briefings in the three months since, with just one of those coming in the past six weeks. Though the briefing under Sanders and her predecessor, Sean Spicer, had become an exercise in deflection and misinformation, it still has “both a symbolic and a substantive importance,” as White House Correspondents Association President Olivier Knox said last month. As the midterm elections approach, and Trump continues to hit the campaign trail, the daily briefing appears dead, and the public can expect to see more confrontations like Monday’s.

Below, more on the new world of White House coverage.

  • More refusals from Trump: When CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked the president about Kavanaugh at the trade announcement, Trump told her, “Don’t do that,” and moved on to the next question. He later returned to Collins and allowed her to ask her question, but refused her follow-up. Collins received support from colleagues, including NBC’s Hallie Jackson, who tweeted, “@kaitlancollins isn’t there to be nice. She’s there to do her job. Which is: to ask the president questions – whether he likes them or not.”
  • Shouted down: Jezebel’s Ashley Reese notes that, at Monday’s press conference, Trump was antagonistic toward the media as a whole, but “he was noticeably more hostile toward the women journalists than the men.”
  • Direct messaging: The Washington Post’s Philip Bump writes that Monday showed how the president “eliminates the middleman in his war against journalists.”
  • Who’s in the room: Following up on Paul Farhi’s look at the lack of diversity in the White House press corps, Washingtonian’s Brittany Shepherd writes about covering the administration as a black reporter. “When you’re talking with people who view any hint of race as an on-ramp to identity politics, it’s almost impossible for a black reporter to gain their trust,” Shepherd writes.

 

Other notable stories:

  • Facebook’s latest security breach has been overshadowed by coverage of the investigation into Brett Kavanaugh’s past, but 50 million users having their personal information exposed is a big deal. “The reason the facebook hack isn’t getting crazy attention is because the republic is falling apart,” tweeted The New York Times’s Mike Isaac on Monday. “Were we not in the middle of this scotus thing people would realize how mindblowingly bad this hack is.” Isaac and his colleague Sheera Frenkel have details on the breach.
  • The Post’s Margaret Sullivan pushes back against criticism of the press—including some from CJR—over its reporting on Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. “The press criticism, from all sides, reminds me of the oft-quoted quip about democracy: ‘the worst form of government except for all the others.’ So, too, American journalism in 2018,” Sullivan writes.
  • In his new column, NYU’s Jay Rosen lists the biggest challenges facing journalism today. Among them: the growing right-wing populist wave across America and Europe that trafficks in attacks on the press, the unclear and unstable business model, and the lack of diversity in newsrooms.
  • Jemele Hill has a new home. The former SportsCenter anchor and longtime newspaper columnist will be writing for The Atlantic. “You can’t talk about sports without talking about race, class, gender and politics,” Hill said in the statement announcing her hiring. “I want to explore the complications and discomforts with a publication that has a long history of supporting this kind of work.”
  • For CJR, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer profiles theLAnd, a quarterly magazine created by several former LA Weekly journalists who were laid off after the publication was purchased last year. At stake in the battle between theLAnd and LA Weekly, Mohajer writes, “is not only a romantic notion of the alt-weekly, but also the development of a local press that can offer a rich look at the diversity of spirit and people of the vast city.”
  • The Washington Times issued an apology and retraction “for an editorial it published in March about Aaron Rich, the brother of the slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich whose unsolved murder became the basis for conspiracy theories on the far-right,” reports CNN’s Oliver Darcy.

ICYMI: Kavanaugh aftermath dominates weekend coverage

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.