On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan walked into the James S Brady Briefing Room to face 49 journalists across the room’s seven rows of seats, and another 30-some standing among the aisles. Over the course of the morning, more reporters than had been on the White House grounds on any single day since President Biden took office trickled into the room and the press work space behind it. Many of them had not seen each other in person or without masks in over a year, lending what one press corps veteran called a “first day of school” vibe to the proceedings.
For one whole hour, both officials — first Sullivan, then Psaki — held forth on a cornucopia of subjects, ranging from Biden’s upcoming trip to the UK, Belgium, and Switzerland; his summit with Vladimir Putin; and the Republican Party’s push to overrule popular vote results from 2020 and nullify Democratic election wins.
It was a marked contrast with how Psaki’s Trump-serving predecessors handled the stress that comes from handling questions from 80 journalists, all chasing stories and looking for answers on subjects about which the White House may not always want to be forthcoming. There were no insults directed at the press. No videos of the Speaker of the House walking around a beauty salon were displayed to mock her. And unlike her most recent predecessor, Psaki did not wrap up the briefing by lecturing the assembled reporters on what, in the government’s estimation, they should have been writing about.
At the outset of the Biden administration, Psaki promised to hold briefings on most weekdays, and to be transparent with the press to the best of her ability. For the most part, she’s kept those promises. But at the same time, the increase in transparency from White House officials such as the press secretary belies one area in which the Biden administration has maintained a decided lack of transparency. That area? The president himself.
Nearly six months into his administration, Biden has held one solo press conference. That session, held in the East Room of the White House on the 64th day of his administration, only included a small group of pre-selected reporters.
That 64-day interval was the longest during which a new president had declined to conduct a formal press conference. And 74 days later, there is little indication he is prepared to hold another.
It’s not that Biden has employed the method preferred by some of his predecessors for getting a message out, namely sitting for interviews with print publications or television networks. Aside from a handful of events, he hasn’t made many appearances on his own. Nor is he using milestones such as his first overseas trip as a reason to do a round of interviews the way previous presidents have. When your intrepid correspondent enquired as to whether the president could be made available for an interview with The Independent, the White House politely declined.
Yet if you ask Psaki, Biden is being plenty transparent.
During an interview with CNN on Sunday, Psaki was pressed on Biden’s failure to hold subsequent press conferences in the months following his first one. She replied that Biden “takes questions several times a week [and] is always is — almost always open to have that engagement with reporters”.
“I will tell you that there’s an opportunity several times a week for the president to have an engagement and answer questions from reporters,” she continued. “I understand there’s questions about a formal press conference, but that may be driven more by the media than it is by the American public.”
Psaki was referring to so-called “pool sprays,” in which a small group is brought into the Oval Office or another setting to witness an event, with the possibility that Biden will answer shouted questions at the end of whatever prepared remarks are in order that day. Sometimes, he does. Other times, he walks away without a word. It’s a scene reminiscent of the “chopper talks” Trump used to substantiate claims of transparency. And unlike a press conference, the format allows the president to simply ignore any question he doesn’t want to answer. Good for him, not so good for the press.
But if Psaki’s explanation of why it’s no big deal that Biden prefers such encounters to a press conference sounds familiar, it’s because the Trump White House used the same excuse.
More than a year after Trump held his first press conference in February 2017, Sanders was asked about his lack of a repeat performance. Her response? “President Trump is more accessible than most modern presidents and frequently takes questions from the press,” she said, referring to his frequent appearances in “pool sprays”.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.