Press secretary Sean Spicer hasn’t held an on-camera briefing in a week.
Veteran White House correspondents say this is unusual, particularly at the start of an administration, when there are dozens of daily announcements.
Before Inauguration Day, Spicer said he might curtail the number of on-camera White House briefings, but in his first month as press secretary, he held them almost every weekday. The sometimes testy Q&As were parodied by “Saturday Night Live” and privately critiqued by Trump.
Spicer held three on-camera briefings the week of February 20. He held only one last week, on Monday.
In lieu of on-camera opportunities to question the government’s top spokesman, the press office has been holding off-camera briefings, known as gaggles.
Those sessions have also been a source of tension. On February 24, Spicer and his aides blocked journalists from CNN, The New York Times and other big news outlets from attending a gaggle in his office. There hasn’t been a repeat at subsequent gaggles.
Another gaggle is scheduled for Monday afternoon, inside the main press briefing room, at the time when on-camera briefings are usually held. The cameras will be turned off.
Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents Association, told CNN that the group “urged Sean to hold an on-camera briefing today instead of the off-camera gaggle.”
But it’s up to Spicer, not the press corps.
In response to emailed questions from CNN, Spicer said the White House has fulfilled its promise to conduct a daily briefing of some sort — “some on camera, some off.”
He also said that some reporters, including from broadcast outlets, find off-camera briefings more informative.
“Further, we have let the pool know White House spokespeople are available for interviews,” Spicer said.
TV interviews and gaggles aren’t replacements for group Q&As with the government’s top spokesman, however.
Reporters have started to broach the subject. On Monday, for example, ABC’s chief White House correspondent, Jonathan Karl, drew attention on Twitter to the dearth of on-camera briefings.
So … there is no on-camera WH briefing today. And @StateDept, has cancelled its briefing today, which was to be the 1st since January 19
— Jonathan Karl (@jonkarl) March 6, 2017
“We have noticed the lack of on-camera briefings,” Sabrina Siddiqui of The Guardian newspaper told CNN. “It is not normal to have this many ‘off-camera gaggles.’”
“We definitely have noticed,” said George Condon, National Journal’s White House correspondent, who doubles as a historian. “I can’t say that I am very surprised, though. They have been predicting something like this all through the transition.”
“Sean Spicer clearly was under orders to ‘shake up’ the briefing,” he added. “Fortunately, the more radical changes — like tossing the press out of the White House and eliminating the daily briefing — didn’t happen.”
Gaggles, sometimes held in the press secretary’s office, have been a useful supplement to on-camera briefings in the past.
But “having off-camera gaggles in the briefing room as substitutes for on-camera briefings is not established practice,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a retired Towson University professor who studies the relationship between presidents and the press.
Kumar said the Trump administration is “experimenting with who briefs, where, and under what circumstances.”
Televised briefings are valuable to TV networks for obvious journalistic reasons. Having on-camera answers is increasingly important for digital and social newsrooms too.
Spicer noted that audio recording of off-camera briefings “is always allowed,” and transcripts are made available.
Veteran CBS correspondent Mark Knoller, a keeper of voluminous presidential statistics, doesn’t have any stats for the number of off-camera briefings in prior administrations because, he said, “there were so few.”
Robert Gibbs, who served as President Barack Obama’s first press secretary, said he doesn’t have the stats, either.
“I gaggled on Air Force One and other times when we traveled, but only sparingly when we weren’t traveling,” Gibbs said. “Unless the president had a big event such as a speech to Congress, or we were traveling, my recollection is I briefed on camera.”
The Trump press office has also held gaggles aboard Air Force One in recent weeks. But the off-camera Q&As have supplanted on-camera briefings during some weekdays in Washington as well.
“We don’t need to do everything on camera every day,” Spicer said on February 24.
With Monday’s move to have an off-camera briefing, Spicer may be trying to avoid televised exchanges with reporters about Trump’s baseless claim of wiretapping by Obama.
He may also be trying to keep the news media’s focus on Trump’s signing Monday of a revised immigration order banning travel from six Muslim-majority countries.
But Spicer didn’t allow cameras in the room when Trump signed it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly gave statements without taking questions from reporters.
In fact, Monday is the first weekday of the Trump presidency without any Trump events open to the press.
Separately, the State Department was scheduled to hold its first press briefing of the Trump presidency on Monday, but the briefing was shifted to Tuesday.