When he was running for office, candidate Donald Trump was a fan — in theory, at least — of the regularized, semiformal politician-reporter scrum known as the news conference.
He tweeted to his followers on June 6, 2016: “Crooked Hillary Clinton has not held a news conference in more than 7 months. Her record is so bad she is unable to answer tough questions!”
In politics, as in everything else, there is the theory and there is the practice. As president, Trump has been almost entirely unable to walk his talk about facing tough questions — or softballs — from the media, whose scribes in turn report back to Americans the answers to their questions and the mood inside the room.
His first, and last, news conference as president was held a few weeks after his inauguration in January 2017. Since then, while he has indeed shouted out a few comments while walking toward his helicopter and responds sometimes to queries in what are called “gaggles” — spur-of-the-moment interactions with the small rotating press pool that follows him around — he has never met with reporters in an open session.
Having held just one news conference in his presidency sets a record for contemporary times going back at least to Lyndon Johnson’s administration. By a year into their presidencies, George W. Bush had held five solo news conferences and Barack Obama had held 11.
Times change — and how — and no president is under any actual obligation to meet with members of the press, no matter how good an idea those of us in the media think having an open conversation in person rather than through subordinates or electronic devices might be. But it is absurd to contend, as deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters did recently to the Daily Beast, that “[t]he president and his administration have been one of the accessible administrations” or that the notion that Trump “engages daily with the American people” — presumably through his Twitter account — is anything like a substitute for answering real questions from real reporters.
Contrary to received opinion from those not in the business, good relations with the press are not about the politics, as such, of a chief executive. Reporters, for instance, did not have a warm relationship with Obama, whom they found overly guarded and more than a bit of a mandarin.
Of course, the press has reason to be careful about what we wish for when it comes to White House news conferences. At the one such session the president has held, on Feb. 16, 2017, Trump lashed out at what he again called “fake news” in the media. “Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people.”
What in the world does the president — whose entire business career has been based on cultivating reporters to tell his stories — mean by repeatedly biting the hand that has always fed him? Well, a question such as that is just what reporters could ask if he were to meet the press just as other presidents have. Instead, Trump again last week asked a question that is so very evidently wrong in its basic assumption: “Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt?”
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER