The essence of Donald Trump’s term as president boils down to just two press briefings that bookend his administration.
On the Trump administration’s first full day in office, Press Secretary Sean Spicer entered the White House’s Brady Briefing Room and eagerly debased himself. With accompanying photographs, Spicer told us to ignore what our eyes told us and believe that Trump had the largest inaugural crowd in history.
He said it with a straight face. He took no questions. The whole thing took less than six minutes.
I remember turning to another reporter and saying, “Well, we know where this is going.”
Since that time it has been a steady stream of lies. I and others tried on numerous occasions to call Trump out on those lies. For almost three years he never set foot in the briefing room to answer our questions. His favorite way of communicating with the press was on the South Lawn as he walked to the noisily whirring Marine One. These “ chopper talk” episodes were easy for Trump to control. He could ignore the questions he didn’t like, looking angrily at whoever asked them, and push his lies with relative impunity as reporters found it hard to follow up on their own questions, let alone anyone else’s.
You could also find him in a news conference in the East Room on occasion, or perhaps in the Rose Garden. In a 2018 East Room appearance, he got so angry at CNN’s Jim Acosta that he subsequently ordered Acosta’s press pass be taken away. At a 2020 Rose Garden event he yelled at me and vowed to leave if I didn’t quit questioning him. He had my press pass taken away, too, after another Rose Garden event. (Following lawsuits, both Acosta’s pass and my pass were restored.)
Trump finally showed up in the briefing room when the pandemic began and for the last year of his presidency made frequent stops there to spread his lies. While his remarks about curing COVID by putting “very powerful light . . . inside the body” or by injecting bleach and other disinfectants were among the most memorable lies he told there, there were many others.
Spicer was notorious for his activity in the briefing room, but so was his successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Both lied repeatedly. Sanders even admitted to the FBI during the Mueller investigation that she lied to the press. Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s third press secretary, was the only Trump appointee who never lied in the briefing room. That’s because she never held a briefing. That’s as good as Trump’s White House got.
The worst was his last press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. In her first briefing she promised never to lie to the American people. That was her first lie—and it was followed by a litany of QAnon conspiracy theories as well as mendacious and corrosive missives lacking in humor and humanity. Her standard bill of fare included a five-minute introductory statement in which she’d insulted Democrats, the press, or someone else the president was on about. Then she’d take five or six questions from mostly friendly media before making another statement in which she worshiped Donald Trump—and then she’d leave. These creepily fascistic high school pep rallies routinely lasted about 25 minutes.
In her January 7 briefing—perhaps her last appearance—McEnany ended the Trump administration’s presence in the briefing room the same way Spicer started it. With just fourteen or so of us in the room because of the pandemic, the press secretary came out and read a statement condemning violence at the U.S. Capitol while taking no responsibility for it and also equating it with Black Lives Matter protests. After just three minutes she walked out of the briefing room, leaving me, Jim Acosta, Jon Karl, and others shouting questions at her.
During Trump’s tenure, the briefing room has turned into a propaganda tabernacle of lies, where false equivalency and alternative facts rule and common sense and truth have no sway. The Capitol insurrection wouldn’t have occurred if Black Lives Matter protesters were arrested; injecting disinfectant can cure COVID; the average American has little chance of getting the coronavirus. You name the lie, chances are its first toxic incarnation, if it didn’t show up in a presidential tweet, appeared in the briefing room.
Trump leaves office a small and insignificant man with a bunch of angry and delusional followers he has easily and thoroughly manipulated. He claims he has lost his ability to communicate since many social media platforms have shown him the door. Twitter, after all, was his go-to crutch. He could preach on twitter with little or no accountability. We couldn’t ask him in real time to clarify, expand, or explain his tweets. Millions of people clicked the “Like” heart button, supplying the instant gratification he craved.
But in losing Twitter Trump has hardly lost his voice—and despite his claims, he certainly hasn’t had his First Amendment rights compromised. As the head of our government Trump has an ability to communicate far greater than anyone else on the planet.
He can walk into the East Room, Rose Garden, Oval Office, or Diplomatic Room and hold a formal press conference any time he wants.
He also can and does produce videos which can be released on the White House website and be seen by anyone in the world.
Those options might take a little preparation in order for Trump to speak—but he also has a bully pulpit that’s even easier to climb into: All he has to do is walk into the Brady Briefing Room, as he has before. The seats are already there. The cameras and lights are in place and just need to be turned on. We will show up with as little as five minutes’ notice and then the world can hear what the president has to say.
The truth is, it isn’t much. Trump preferred the 280-character tweet because that’s all his flaccid mind can construct. Contiguous thoughts, cogent and rational policies, well-crafted sentences, and spirited give and take have never been his strong suit.
In less than a week we will no longer have to listen to Trump rattle. Until then we need to hear him—even if we don’t want to do so.
But as the first press briefing with Spicer showed us, and as the last briefing with McEnany showed us—don’t expect much. Don’t expect facts. Expect corrosive toxins and nothing else.