The White House briefing has often been contentious, long-winded and stuffed with hot air — emitted by both spinning political flaks and grandstanding reporters. It was all a bit of a game. Presidents sent press secretaries to take heat so they didn't have to. Reporters knew a tense exchange could get them on the evening news and please their editor.
But while most real Washington news seeps out from inside sources, briefings did have a purpose. Every day, a representative of the president had to justify his policies to Americans. It was a powerful way for administrations to talk to the world and an example to authoritarian states of how democratic values work.
You'll notice we're using the past tense here.
From the moment President Donald Trump sent Sean Spicer out to contradict visual evidence
about his inaugural crowd, the briefing ceased to be a trusted venue for information. Trump's fourth press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, has revived the briefing after a yearlong absence. But it might have been better in hibernation
, a Harvard graduate and former CNN commentator, is a talented communicator. But her briefings seem exclusively designed to create viral moments that set Trump's political base afire. She usually ends up asking the questions — demanding outlets validate Trump's baseless conspiracies.
Last week, when asked whether Trump's call for pews to be filled was wise amid a pandemic, she implied
reporters are a bunch of atheists who want churches closed. On Thursday she hinted doctors should prescribe hydroxychloroquine, the drug boosted by Trump that has not been proven to cure or prevent Covid-19. With a straight face, she said the President always intends to "give truthful information to the American people."
Tensions always flare between press secretaries and the press. Relations were sour under Richard Nixon's man Ron Ziegler. Mike McCurry took a pounding during Bill Clinton's scandals. Ari Fleischer clashed heatedly with reporters under George W. Bush. And the White House press was often deeply frustrated about access to Barack Obama.
Information in those briefings was sometimes selective, slanted and politically self-serving. But it generally stopped short of outright falsehoods.
The White House podium no longer carries that guarantee.