White House press briefings, in steady decline even before the partial government shutdown, have now ground to a halt as a prolonged power struggle among President Donald Trump’s aides leads to a muddled messaging strategy, people familiar with the matter say.
Now, when officials find the need to speak to reporters from the space, dust must be cleared from the lectern.
In the 32 days since the government partially shut down, the lack of a cohesive strategy emanating from the White House communications team has frustrated people throughout the West Wing who have deemed the press shop “irrelevant.”
Two years into his presidency, Trump remains his own communications director, eight current and former officials noted. Asked who’s in charge of messaging at the White House, press secretary Sarah Sanders told CNN in a statement: “It’s the President’s message.”
Indeed, Trump takes questions from reporters regularly on the White House South Lawn and drives his own messaging through Twitter, and has eschewed the more formal question-and-answer sessions traditionally conducted by press aides.
Trump himself declared the concept of a daily press briefing all but dead Tuesday.
“The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press,” he tweeted. “I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway! Most will never cover us fairly & hence, the term, Fake News!”
Though press briefings in the Trump administration were once must-see television that garnered high ratings, the press secretary has not taken questions from reporters in the briefing room since mid-December. It is the longest an administration has gone without an on-camera briefing since they were first aired during Bill Clinton’s administration.
The previously daily briefings got shorter and less frequent during Sean Spicer’s rocky tenure after Trump told him to stop conducting them, privately lamenting that every time he briefed reporters the coverage only got worse.
By contrast, the President has built a warm relationship with Sanders and praises her regularly in private. Her colleagues often compare her relationship with the mercurial boss to the one he had with Hope Hicks, his onetime communications director who during her tenure acted as Trump’s closest White House confidante.
This has befuddled multiple senior White House officials who told CNN they don’t understand why Sanders no longer holds formal briefings, which could help drive the White House’s message, if the President has no problem with her defending him on camera.
And on Tuesday it drew the ire of the White House Correspondents’ Association, whose president said in a statement the decline in briefings amounted to a “retreat from transparency and accountability” that “sets a terrible precedent.”
“Being able to question the press secretary or other senior government officials publicly helps the news media tell Americans what their most powerful representatives are doing in their name,” said Olivier Knox, the group’s president.
The briefing deficiency highlighted by the shutdown only encapsulates an ongoing power struggle that has existed among the West Wing communications team for months now, according to interviews with several current and former White House officials.
No one has emerged as the clear leader among Sanders, Bill Shine, Kellyanne Conway or Mercedes Schlapp, leading to deep divisions among one of the administration’s most fractious departments and causing a void for a coverage-obsessed president.
The communications team has also drawn the ire of dozens of senior staffers, including Trump at times, who have blamed them for failing to blunt PR missteps and allowing them to turn into full-blown disasters.
The inner workings of the communications team were described to CNN by 11 current and former White House officials who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
In a West Wing where proximity to the President translates into power, the four senior communications aides – Sanders, Shine, Conway and Schlapp – can often be found where Trump is.
All four were present for a relatively mundane hurricane briefing in October. Three – Shine, Sanders and Conway – were back again during his interview with two Washington Post reporters in later November. And all of them were seated along the wall of the Situation Room during Trump’s first, second and third meetings with Democrats during the partial government shutdown.
Mick Mulvaney, who replaced John Kelly as chief of staff earlier this year, has made clear to staff that he has no desire to curb access to Trump, as his predecessor did.
But despite the constant presence of four senior communications officials, their colleagues say it has not helped form a coherent message.
“Just because our strategy doesn’t match what people want or think it should be, doesn’t mean there isn’t a strategy,” Sanders told CNN.
When Trump hired Shine after months of cajoling, there was a sense of dread among the communications team because they didn’t know what to expect. Staffers weren’t sure if he would enact sweeping staffing changes, as Anthony Scaramucci threatened during his brief stint on the job.
In fact, Shine didn’t fire anyone, and the only person he hired was a well-liked junior press aide whose duties previously included sending out the President’s schedule. Seven months into his tenure, Shine has not hired anyone else. Two sources familiar with his role say this is because he does not have the hiring power he expected to wield.
Other officials – who once said they couldn’t think of a better communications director for Trump than a former television executive – have been disappointed by his approach. So far, Shine’s contribution has largely consisted of phoning Fox News hosts and booking officials on the shows so they can defend the President on a network whose audience largely already favors him.
“I think Bill Shine is having fun being the President’s buddy at work every day,” said a Shine ally when asked about his responsibility.
Shine is well liked inside the West Wing because he is seen as someone who is decisive in a sea of indecision, three officials said. But Trump, who often has unrealistic expectations of what his staff can accomplish, has complained about Shine privately at times, noting he hasn’t received better coverage since he hired him.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the White House press office have dwindled since the start of Trump’s term, when a roster of assistant and deputy press secretaries were each assigned specific topic areas of focus, such as the economy or health care. Now, desks go unfilled and far fewer aides are responsible for fielding press questions or developing communications strategies around the President’s agenda.
The latest staffer to depart is Raj Shah, once the office’s No. 2 who helped steer communications strategy around Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Shah announced earlier this month he was leaving to join a lobbying firm.
The White House has not filled the roles of many younger press aides who have departed, including in the “assistant press secretary” or “deputy press secretary” positions. In the past, those jobs have included responsibility for drafting talking points, writing fact sheets, issuing press releases and planning events to roll out the President’s policy priorities.
Staffers in those roles also helped prepare the press secretary for the daily briefing, a task that no longer carries the same weight as the event has turned into a once-a-month affair.
There has been little urgency in filling the vacant roles, according to people familiar with the matter. Once viewed as a prime career-maker for young political operatives, there have not been a rush of candidates to fill empty seats. At the same time, the White House has not prioritized hiring new communications staffers, particularly as Trump’s campaign conducts its own hiring heading into the 2020 re-election effort.
One person close to the matter said the diminished staffing has created the atmosphere of a crisis communications shop rather than an operation that can drive a message. Because only a few staffers remain, there is a lack of manpower for creating a broad messaging strategy, the person said.
Sanders, who has young children, was widely expected to leave the administration late last year, but a person close to her said that changed after Mulvaney replaced Kelly as chief of staff. Aides have breathed a sigh of relief at this because, unlike when Spicer was press secretary, there is no leading candidate to replace Sanders.
Trump picked Heather Nauert, once seen as a Sanders replacement possibility, to become the next US ambassador to the United Nations. And current deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, was once seen as a dark horse to replace Sanders, but some officials are no longer entertaining that as a possibility.
Trump was impressed by Gidley’s television appearances during the previous government shutdown. Once, after watching Gidley on his screen in the residence, the President walked over to the communications office to tell the staff he thought they were handling the shutdown well.
In the days afterward, Trump confused several officials when he directed them to, “Get me Tidley.”
“Who?” puzzled staffers asked.
“Tidley,” Trump replied. “I want to talk to Hogan Tidley.”
They informed him that the deputy press secretary’s last name was Gidley, not Tidley.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify which aides attended a Washington Post interview.