Why is the White House press corps giving such a giant pass to Donald Trump for his lack of solo press conferences? We are days away from marking his first year in office and in all of that time, Trump has only held one formal solo press conference -- a whopping 328 days ago, on February 16. And yet there is nary a peep from the press corps about this remarkable lack. Previously, when presidents have stiff-armed the press for months on end, news organizations begin running countdown clocks (technically, they're actually count-up clocks) showing how many days and months it has been since the last presidential presser. Haven't seen anything like that this time, though.
Even giving Trump a slight break on the definition doesn't improve the situation much. On two occasions since that February press conference, Trump has essentially hijacked what were supposed to be short announcements with others and transmogrified them into solo press conferences. The first of these was in August, when Trump appeared in Trump Tower for what was supposed to be a boring announcement on infrastructure. Trump took over and answered questions himself for a long stretch of time, qualifying it as a press conference in all but formal name. The second time Trump did this was after a lunch with Mitch McConnell, where they were supposed to give a short "everything's hunky-dory" statement to the press. Again, Trump took the reins and turned it into a de facto solo presser. This was on October 16, which was 86 days ago.
In both of these later instances, Trump was driven to his impromptu pressers by burning issues that he really wanted to address. The first happened roughly a week after the Charlottesville tragedy. Between when the violence happened and the infrastructure announcement, Trump had issued a statement obviously written by someone else, and he was chafing to get a few ideas of his own off his chest. This was the event where Trump called the neo-Nazis "very fine people," in case you've forgotten.
The second event also turned out to be controversial, as Trump went on at length about how he was the best president ever when it came to consoling widows of slain American soldiers. This led to some hasty calls made from the White House (since Trump had lied about how many such calls he had made), Trump being forced to make good on a promise to send tens of thousands of dollars to the father of a dead soldier, and weeks of sparring with a war widow in Florida and her congressional champion.
So it's understandable why the White House has shied away from holding more solo Trump press conferences. Dealing with the aftermath from them must be exhausting, after all. But why has the press been so complacent in this tactic?
A quick internet search didn't turn up full schedules, but did reveal the following snippet of history: "In his first two years, President Obama held 21 solo [press] conferences, President George W. Bush 7, President Clinton 29, and George H. W. Bush 56 solo sessions." Assuming a fairly steady rate and dividing these numbers in half (to cover the first year), this means Obama had probably held at least 10 press conferences by this point in his presidency, Clinton had held at least 14, and George H. W. Bush an astonishing 28. George W. Bush likely had held 3, which (if you expand the definition a bit) would match up with Trump's output. But if you kept to a strict definition, even Dubya had held three times the single solo presser that Trump has managed.
In recent times, when a president has gone a long time without holding a press conference, the news media has mocked him for it. This usually gets under their skin over time, and a press conference will eventually be held. But Trump just blew off a traditional year-end press conference, and this time the media mostly yawned, for some reason.
This is all the more extraordinary when you consider how easy it is to get under Trump's skin about his presidential performance. Just yesterday, he gave the press an extraordinary look into the bargaining over immigration with congressional leaders. For almost an hour, Trump allowed the cameras to roll. This was (obviously) in response to the growing chorus voicing their concerns about the president's mental capacity, initially sparked by the Michael Wolff tell-all book. Trump's team decided the best way to shoot down such talk was to show Trump at work. This was somewhat successful (in that Trump didn't drool into his tie or anything), but was undermined when Trump appeared to agree with Dianne Feinstein that passing a "clean DACA" bill would be a good idea. Trump obviously didn't understand what she was proposing at all, which kind of reinforced the image of Trump not being up to the job. So it was a mixed performance, even at best.
But if the White House press corps really wanted to, they could pretty easily goad Trump into giving another press conference. They could easily launch off the "moron or stable genius" argument and begin openly questioning if the reason Trump refuses to give solo press conferences is that it is beyond his mental ability to concentrate on such things for a whole hour's time. A few "Trump Afraid To Hold Solo Presser" headlines would probably do the trick. Questioning his mental ability to perform would likely enrage Trump enough that he'd have to prove himself capable of doing so. Especially if such a story ran on Fox News.
Trump used to sincerely enjoy sparring with the press. He saw such situations as nothing short of open warfare with "fake news" journalists, and in his own mind he always came out the victor of such verbal wrestling matches. As a candidate, Trump was downright eager to talk to the press and held question-and-answer sessions on a regular and frequent basis. So it's not like he doesn't personally enjoy press conferences or anything.
Again, this provides an easy way of shaming the president into holding pressers, if the White House press corps really wanted to. "Trump Being Handled By Aides, Who Refuse To Let Him Hold Press Conferences" would be the storyline which could easily spur Trump to act. He is hypersensitive about being seen as anyone's puppet, after all, and the idea of proving wrong the image of his staff pulling his strings to keep him from speaking to the press would be like catnip to him. My guess is that Trump would hold a press conference within a week of such a story making the rounds, to prove both that he was capable of doing so, and (within his own mind) to prove that he could easily "win" such a matchup.
So why isn't the media doing so? I really have no idea. Why aren't there clocks at CNN and other media websites showing "328 days since the last solo Trump press conference... and counting..."? All it would take to get Trump to hold a presser would be to dare him to do so. Run the story that Trump is scared of holding a solo press conference, and he'd likely do so within days. In fact, it'd be so easy to make this happen it makes it all the more notable that it hasn't. So why is the media giving Trump such a huge pass on his lack of press conferences? Your guess is as good as mine.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
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