President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that, because his aides can’t speak with “perfect accuracy,” it might be best “to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy.”
Trump has identified an obvious truth in his administration: If his aides speak less, they will necessarily lie less. Trump presents his finding as some sort of natural gap between the truth and what is said on his behalf, as though his spokespeople are just poor connectors in a game of telephone.
Of course, the real reason they lie so much is because that’s a requirement of the job in the Trump presidency. If you won’t sacrifice your honor and integrity for Trump, publicly, shamelessly and on a daily basis, you won’t work for him for long.
In some cases, though, Trump is right. His aides — from Sean Spicer to Sarah Huckabee Sanders — are simply not effectively communicating his latest fabrication. All too often, they are on the early-early afternoon talking points when Trump already has moved on to make policy or political adjustment with the early-afternoon talking points. This clearly annoys Trump as much as he is delighted by the lying on his behalf.
Playing catch up
That is, he’s getting tired of having to clean up the set of lies his spokespeople tell from the podium because they haven’t caught up to the new set of lies. That’s basically what Spicer was saying on Friday when he explained what’s going on to reporters.
“We work very hard to get you the most accurate and up-to-date information throughout the day,” Spicer said. “We don’t always have the opportunity to get in to see the president.”
As if the only truth is the story spun by Trump at any given moment. Occasionally, Trump sprinkles in some facts, mainly, it appears, so that he can throw shade at those who call him out for lying. But he spends nearly half his time contradicting things that he or other members of his administration have just said.
This week, he threw Vice President Mike Pence under the bus that’s normally parked atop the White House press office.
Pence had the poor judgment to argue that Trump had decided to fire FBI Director Jim Comey only on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump made clear that he’d already decided to fire Comey before he heard from Rosenstein and Sessions.
There’s a good reason for the White House to have cooked up a story about Rosenstein and Sessions: It’s both within the president’s power to fire the FBI director for any reason and wildly inappropriate for him to fire that FBI director because the bureau is investigating him.
If it was about Rosenstein’s assessment of Comey’s job performance — a thin fig leaf, to be sure — at least Trump could claim he didn’t just sack Comey because of the investigation of the Trump operation’s ties to Russia.
An inadvertent truth
But Trump couldn’t help himself. This time, he told what appears to be the truth: The Justice Department recommendations were a charade. That made a liar of everyone else involved in the story, particularly his press team. Since they’re rewarded for lying on Trump’s behalf — at least when he can watch them on television — there’s not much value in reporters talking to them on camera.
That isn’t to say that Spicer and Sanders aren’t capable of telling the truth — they and others in the White House do that away from the camera — but that the daily briefings and other appearances on television require them to say whatever they think Trump wants them to say, true or not, or risk losing their jobs.
That’s why the White House press briefing has become counterproductive for everyone involved — except Trump.
The press team would be better off if they could talk to reporters behind the scenes without having to perform for Trump.
Reporters would be better off if they didn’t have to dive down rabbit holes to disprove absurd-on-their-face claims made from the podium.
And the American people would be better off if reporters could spend less of their time distracted by the White House press aides and more of their time digging into what’s actually going on in the administration.
That’s what Trump doesn’t seem to get: The briefings benefit him, not the reporters. They amount to little more than midday detention for some of the best journalists in the world, eating up time that would be better spent with sources who might tell the truth.
On this, I am in lockstep with Trump: He should cancel the daily briefings.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.