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What is the point of White House press briefings anymore?

Sean Spicer’s back, and he’s as opaque as ever.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing At White House Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After a 15-day hiatus from the cameras, White House press secretary Sean Spicer returned to face the press Tuesday in a televised briefing that began with an Orwellian tribute to the president’s recent trip abroad and ended, fittingly, with the press secretary walking out in the middle of an argument about fake news.

During his brief 30-minute appearance, Spicer spent a third of his time waxing on about the president’s “extraordinarily successful” trip to the Middle East and Europe before allowing reporters to speak. In the remaining 20 minutes, he dodged just about every question of substance:

  • What does the president think of his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s reported efforts to communicate secretly with the Russians? “Your question pre-supposes facts that are not confirmed,” Spicer said.
  • Does the president want the Senate to eliminate the filibuster, as he implied in his tweet this morning? “He wants to see action done, John, that’s what the president wants,” Spicer replied, neither confirming nor denying.
  • Does the president believe that humans are causing climate change? “Honestly, I haven’t asked him,” Spicer said.

This endless sequence of non-answers raised another question, one that has been hanging over Spicer and the administration for weeks now: What is the point of having press briefings anymore if they are only going to involve deflection and disinformation?

On Tuesday morning, White House communications director Mike Dubke announced his resignation, a move that many believe foreshadows further shakeups in the administration. Dubke’s departure supercharged rumors that the White House is looking to revamp its communications strategy. Several reports have suggested that Trump might demote Spicer, or at least downplay the daily televised briefings that many have delighted the president at one point, but have now become unwieldy as the administration faces down one scandal after another.

In a different era, the White House press briefings were low-key and rarely televised live. They were a chance for the press secretary to deliver updates, clear up day-to-day misconceptions, and to take the temperature of the nation’s top reporters. Under the Trump administration, the briefings have become belligerent, blustery, and increasingly divorced from reality.

Case in point: Spicer’s extended monologue about the president’s first foreign trip, which swooned with hyperbolic praise and repeatedly abused the word “historic”: The president gave a “historic speech” that “was met with nearly universal praise.” He closed on “historic economic deals for the United States,” and his visit to Saudi Arabia marked a “historic turning point” for the Arab and Muslim countries of the world.

In truth, Trump’s overseas trip was strewn with gaffes that may have done lasting damage to some of America’s most important relationships. Nicholas Burns, the former US ambassador to NATO under George W. Bush, called Trump’s meeting with NATO leaders — which involved the shoving of prime minister — “the least effective of any American President since 1949.” (NATO was founded in 1949.)

But in Spicer’s mirror-world version of events, Trump had inspired America’s allies with his charm and leadership. There’s no other word to describe it: What Spicer delivered was 10 minutes of propaganda, carried live on all the nation’s top news channels.

Press secretaries have always been expected to spin the truth, and there’s an art to reading between the lines of a press briefing: Nobody expects Sean Spicer to give an honest assessment of Trump’s overseas diplomacy, or to say what Trump really thinks about the Kushner-Russia scandal. But there supposed to be value in observing how the administration defends itself.

It’s hard to see what value there is in watching Sean Spicer kick up sand for half an hour. At Tuesday’s briefing, for instance, Spicer alternated between denying reports that Jared Kushner sought to conduct secret back channel communications with the Russians, and defending back channels as a legitimate diplomatic technique.

“How is it appropriate for someone who is not a private citizen, who is not sworn in as an official for the US government, to conduct diplomacy with a foreign official?” one reporter asked.

“Again, I would refer you to the comments that Secretary Kelly and Gen. McMaster have said about how they can be important tool in diplomacy,” Spicer replied.

Naturally, the briefing ended with a discussion of fake news, a topic that Spicer was visibly more comfortable with. “[The president] is frustrated like I am and so many others to see stories come out that are patently false, to see narratives that are wrong and see, quote⁄unquote fake news,” Spicer said.

When asked for an example of fake news, Spicer referred to a tweet from the BBC’s James Landale, who accused Trump of not wearing a translation headset during the Italian Prime Minister’s speech at the G7 summit last week. As a series of articles quickly pointed out, it turns out that Trump was listening to the translation through a hidden earpiece.

At Tuesday’s press conference, reporters complained that Spicer’s example was unfair and hardly spoke to the quality of the investigative reporting that has been dominating front pages in recent weeks. “You’re making something out of one tweet,” someone said. “Reporters make mistakes,” someone else added.

“There are mistakes like that and I was asked to give an example and I did it,” Spicer replied, shortly before walking away from the podium.

“Is Kushner ‘fake news’?” one reporter shouted after him.

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