“Some of the Fake News Media likes to say that I am not totally engaged in healthcare,” President Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “Wrong, I know the subject well & want victory for U.S.”
Fine, Mr. President, there’s an easy way to prove your asserted knowledge: Have a news conference. Answer questions that aren’t softballs tossed by your friends at Fox News.
In the age of Trump, some of the president’s deviations from democratic and political norms slap you in the face. Attacks on federal judges for decisions that don’t go his way. Attacks on news organizations for articles that portray him in a bad light. Misstatement piled on misstatement. Nepotism run amok. Transparency abandoned, from disclosure of tax returns to release of White House visitor records.
But other shifts, equally audacious and equally troubling, take a more subtle form. They unfold slowly until, perhaps too late, the change becomes blindingly apparent. So it is with Trump’s dealings with the media, and the effective disappearance of public accountability. Authoritarianism does not announce itself. It creeps up on you.
The president has had a single formal news conference — in February, 168 days after his previous such encounter with the media. At this point in their presidencies, Barack Obama had held seven; George W. Bush three; Bill Clinton seven; George H.W. Bush 15.
Like his predecessors, Trump has also answered a few questions at joint news conferences with foreign leaders — although Trump has had a smaller number of such events than his predecessors and, unlike them, has made a habit of directing questions to friendly conservative news outlets. Until, that is, Monday’s joint appearance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at which the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies took zero questions.
And so, all the fuss over whether the regular White House press briefing will be televised misses the more fundamental point of presidential inaccessibility. The practice of live on-camera briefings is far better, but it’s not as if this practice is chiseled in stone; it didn’t start until the Clinton administration.
The medium is not the message — the message is. What’s more important than video is having spokesmen capable of speaking with authority on the president’s positions — not the relentless incuriosity of Trump’s flacks, who seem never to have gathered his thoughts on topics from Russian hacking to climate change.
What’s more important is having spokesmen who use the briefing as more than a platform for irresponsible media-bashing, such as Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s magnificently ironic complaint about “the constant barrage of fake news directed at this president,” followed by approvingly citing (“whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know”) an anti-CNN video by fake news huckster James O’Keefe.
And what’s most important is the opportunity to question the president himself. A president automatically commands airtime; this president, through his Twitter feed, automatically commands attention. But publicity without accountability is the antithesis of democracy. Reporters questioning elected officials serve in this sense as surrogates for the public.
Remember back when Trump and his campaign were busy blasting Hillary Clinton for failing to hold a news conference.
As for other ways in which Trump has made himself accessible, or not? Well, he went 41 days between interviews — from May 13 with Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro (“Your agenda is not getting out, because people are caught up on the [James B.] Comey issue, and ridiculous stuff”) to June 23 with Fox News’s Ainsley Earhardt (on Trump’s bogus suggestion there might be tapes of Comey, she said “That was a smart way to make sure he stayed honest in those hearings”).
But Pirro and Earhardt looked like Woodward and Bernstein compared with “Fox & Friends’” Pete Hegseth, who pummeled Trump on June 25 with questions such as “Who’s been your biggest opponent? Has it been Democrats resisting? Has it been the fake-news media?Has it been deep-state leaks?”
Wow. Who’s a snowflake now?
This isn’t journalism — it’s a pillow fight. And the beauty of submitting to this faux-interviewing is its perfect circularity: Trump gets to make his remarks, coddled by Fox News. Then White House press secretary Sean Spicer, with the cameras not rolling, gets to cite them as a shield against providing further information: “I believe that the president’s remarks on ‘Fox & Friends’ this morning reflect the president’s position.”
Is this what our democracy has been reduced to? We in the media can’t make Trump take our questions. But supinely accepting his silence threatens to normalize the distinctly abnormal.