In the first months of President Donald Trump’s presidency, the briefing room was standing room only. Around the room’s 49 assigned seats for the press, with the front rows reserved for big media, reporters with smaller news outfits jostled for space and a chance to pose a question of then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Playboy’s Brian Karem named those of us standing in the sidelines “the aisle people.”
Trump was a full employment act for political journalists. Networks and newspapers couldn’t get enough of a story that sold itself to news consumers. Trump himself has been more accessible to the press corps than predecessors who had nicer things to say about the Fifth Estate.
Three press secretaries later, the briefings have come to a standstill. What used to be a must-see spectacle has evaporated. Blame it on the coronavirus and Trump’s idiosyncratic mandates.
Trump and Kayleigh McEnany, his fourth press secretary, both tested positive in early October, which made briefings untenable. After McEnany was able to return to work, she was focused on the campaign trail. There hasn’t been a press briefing in about a month.
Not a first. Trump’s third press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, did not preside over a regular briefing where she took questions during the nine months she held the prestigious post.
Enter the White House Coronavirus Task Force that brought energy and new characters to the Trump Show—with Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx informing the public about a pandemic that required Americans to do things—socially distance, stop working and stay home —that went against their instincts.
They had a different approach than Trump, which added dramatic tension.
Partisans fault Trump for not taking extreme shutdown measures in January or February. They forget how skeptical many Americans were, that many blue state governors hesitated to close nonessential businesses and that local officials generally had a better sense of what they needed to do and could accomplish.
After taking the job in April, McEnany brought back the back-and-forth, but also COVID-19 changed how the administration communicated with the people.
The briefings got smaller because the White House Correspondents’ Association, more concerned about the health and safety of its members than the White House was about its staff, worked out a plan that strictly limited who should work in the press area and when. The WHCA set up a rotation schedule for 14 seats, banned reporters standing in the aisles and discouraged members from working at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. unless they were in the press pool or had their turn in one of the 14 seats.
The new order worked well for folks such as me. To her credit, McEnany tried to call on everyone in the room—not just the front rows—and that provided chances to ask questions about Las Vegas and an administration decision to deny Paycheck Protection Program funds to small casinos, which the administration revoked.
At the same time, The Washington Post and The New York Times stopped sending reporters to briefings—despite journalists’ designation as essential workers. Not a coincidence: The left wing had begun to call for journalists to boycott White House events during an election.
Where does it go from here?
If Joe Biden wins this week, the briefing room will be back in business and big media likely will flock to the center of power to lob softballs at the new president and his new press secretary.
But given Biden’s limited press availability during the campaign, the often fawning questions directed at the Democratic nominee and his team’s quickness to shut down any reportage on Hunter Biden’s cashing in on his father’s connections, the result could be more civility but less information.
If Trump wins, he will be governing in a shrinking bubble.
The 45th president doesn’t talk to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He berates former stars in his White House team. Then he retreats to the warm embrace of his rallies rather than find a way to bridge divides. Is the now empty briefing room a metaphor for the Trump presidency? Figure it wouldn’t happen to any other president.