Exactly one year ago today, Donald Trump held the first formal solo news conference of his presidency.
He hasn’t held a single one since.
That puts him dead last among the group of recent presidents. In his first year in office, President Barack Obama held 11 formal news conferences while his predecessor, George W. Bush, held four. Bill Clinton held 14. George H.W. Bush held a whopping 26! (All of these stats come courtesy of Michael Calderone’s terrific “Morning Media” newsletter.)
Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the press and the standard conventions of how a president interacts with the media. More so than any president that has come before him, Trump utilizes the media – and his base’s hatred of it – to his political advantage.
The fact that he hasn’t held a solo news conference in a full year will be greeted with joy by many of Trump’s backers. Good, they will say. You media jackals are only out to get him!
Which, of course, isn’t true. And misses the broader point of why presidential press conferences are important for a healthy democracy.
The President – be it Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, Tyler, Monroe or Washington – is a hugely powerful figure. Decisions he makes have profound impacts on real peoples’ lives. From what Trump does – if anything – in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting to his tax policy to immigration to a hundred other big and small decisions he makes on a daily basis, it all matters. Bigly.
When you have that much power, you need to be held to account. Period. You need to be forced to answer questions – and follow-ups and follow-ups to the follow-ups – from independent media sources. You need to be fact checked for accuracy. You need to be, in a word, answerable. Or, in two words: Answerable and accountable.
Now, in Trump’s defense, he hasn’t been totally inaccessible to the media. On occasion – as he did when he recently popped by an off-the-record meeting chief of staff John Kelly was having with reporters – Trump will spend time answering questions in the more informal “gaggle” setting.
At other times, he’s taken part in shorter news conferences alongside other world leaders.
Which is better than nothing. But surprise press availabilities are not the same thing as a formal – and planned – news conferences. Reporters in the latter setting have a chance to consult with their editors and newsroom colleagues to come up with a question that seeks to force a president off his talking points. Impromptu sessions make for less probing questions – and, therefore, less revealing answers. Sessions featuring a limited number of questions and the foreign press are not the same as wide-ranging solo affairs.
That Trump has done far fewer solo news conferences than his predecessors may not be entirely a decision of his own making. Despite Trump’s stated disdain for the media, he is also an avid consumer of cable TV news and print media. He doesn’t really hate the media. Quite the opposite, in fact. He craves the media’s attention and approval even as he insists publicly how terrible all of the people in the media are.
If Trump had his druthers, my guess is he would do lots more talking to the press than he has over his first year-plus in office. But, as this past year has shown, he is an incredibly unpredictable messenger – often veering into territory that not only overshadows his White House’s preferred message of the day but also starts entirely new (and bad) storylines.
Every interaction with the press – from a sitdown interview to a gaggle to a formal press conference – is a minefield for Trump and, by extension, his staff. And so, they do everything they can to keep from talking too much to the media.
It’s not a bad strategy given Trump’s past record. But it does a disservice to the attempt to ensure that the public that voted for Trump to be president is regularly kept informed of how and why he is making certain decisions. Or even that he is making some of these decisions.
And that’s a problem we all should care about.