WASHINGTON — For the first time in over a year, the White House press secretary held a formal press briefing with reporters, a once-daily occurrence that is now part of a new strategy by the White House to try to improve their messaging as they head into the thick of President Donald Trump’s re-election.
Kayleigh McEnany, a political operative who was most recently the Trump campaign spokesperson, came to her first briefing armed with talking points on her boss’s favorite targets, including crime statistics for immigrants, attacks on the World Health Organization, and reported misdeeds by the FBI against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“I will never lie to you, you have my word on that,” she told reporters in the White House briefing room Friday. “As to the timing of the briefings, we do plan to do them, I will announce timing of that forthcoming — but we do plan to continue these.”
The pledge echoed one made during the debut podium appearance of Trump’s first White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, who told journalists in January 2017 that “our intention is never to lie to you.”
The just-over 30-minute appearance isn’t expected to be McEnany’s last, with the White House currently planning for her to hold a briefing at least once a week, said a senior administration official. While she won’t be permanently replacing Trump at the briefing room podium, her presence indicates Trump is listening to advisers who have been urging him for weeks to curb his freewheeling press conferences that can run beyond two hours.
The shift is being driven by new chief of staff Mark Meadows, who brought in McEnany and two of his former aides — Alyssa Farah, who had served as communications director for the House Freedom Caucus and Ben Williamson, his former congressional spokesman — to rework the communications operation, making the message more focused, responding more quickly to reporters’ inquiries and making staffers more accessible to the press.
McEnany, who spent several years defending Trump on cable news, was hired specifically to be the public face of the administration’s defense on television, said a person familiar with the hiring.
The added press secretary briefings aren’t expected to be a replacement for Trump, who views himself as his own best spokesman. The president plans to speak almost daily about the coronavirus, but not necessarily in the form of a press conference or briefing, officials have said. This week he gave a formal press briefing on Monday and took a handful of questions during photo opportunities throughout the week.
“It’s our belief that the president is his strongest when communicating directly to the public – so as much as we can get him out, whether in pool sprays at the end of meetings, in the briefing room, or walking to the helicopter, you’re going to continue to hear from him regularly,” a senior administration official said.
Trump advisers have spent weeks trying to convince the president that his daily briefings were hurting him politically as his poll numbers sagged. It was a point driven home last week when Thursday’s briefing wound up dominated by Trump’s musing about whether injecting disinfectant or putting UV light inside the human body could treat coronavirus infections.
Until the coronavirus pandemic, the White House’s James S. Brady briefing room had taken on the feeling of a forgotten Christmas toy, with dust collecting in the corners, camera equipment filing the seats and reporters on their laptops using it as a temporary workspace. The most excitement it saw was when journalists scrambled to catch a loose mouse running through the rows of seats. The last press secretary briefing, held on March 11, 2019, was one of only two held that year.
Stephanie Grisham, the previous press secretary, never held a briefing or participated in any less formal on-camera question and answer sessions with reporters. Grisham had also been filling the role of communications director, a job typically filled by someone to oversee big picture strategy, since Bill Shine left last March. Over the past year, there have been just a handful of aides to field reporters’ questions as a number of press staffers left and their jobs went unfilled.
It’s all been in stark contrast to the first year of Trump’s term, when then-press secretary Spicer’s daily briefings were must-see television, as he jousted with reporters and delivered combative responses that became storylines in and of themselves — at times overshadowing Trump.
While McEnany took a few jabs at media coverage and sought to turn the tables on several reporters during her first time behind the podium, it was far cry from Spicer’s briefing debut where he infamously laid into reporters for their coverage of Trump’s inauguration crowd size.
For now, Trump himself seems to be listening to the advice to limit his time doing briefings, holding just one this week — although an administration official cautioned that nothing is forever in the Trump White House.