Political News

The White House's indefensible press strategy

Posted December 5, 2017 8:10 a.m. EST

— On Monday, President Donald Trump jetted to Utah and back. Usually, on one leg of these sorts of trips, someone from the White House press shop takes questions from the reporters who cover the President.

Monday wasn't one of those days.

On the flight back to DC, deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley made clear he would only answer reporters' questions if the answers were off the record -- meaning that what he said could not be reported on in any way, shape or form.

Bloomberg's Justin Sink captured the back and forth between Gidley and the reporters on the plane. Here's the key exchange:

Reporter: "We have to ask the questions --"

Gidley: "I understand that, you have a job to do and so do I."

Reporter: "You're not doing your job. Your job is literally to take questions from us. That's the whole point of this." If you don't want to do that, "you can release paper statements if you want."

Gidley: "Please tell me more about my job if I get to tell you more about yours..."

And, scene.

Here's the thing: Hogan Gidley's title is "deputy press secretary." The middle word in that title is "press." It is, quite literally, his job to answer reporters' questions. Not off the record but on the record -- meaning he can be quoted with his name attached to it.

Why? Because Gidley's salary, like all of the employees in the White House, is paid for by taxpayers. And the job of White House reporters is to be the peoples' representative in all of the places the average person can't go -- including on the plane with the President.

The strategy here by Gidley -- and the wider White House press team -- is clear. Gidley wanted the focus of the day to be on Trump's shrinking of two national parks in Utah. He didn't want to answer questions about Roy Moore, Michael Flynn's guilty plea in the Russia investigation or Trump's weekend Twitter attacks on the FBI. And so, Gidley gave reporters two bad choices: 1) ask questions but not report on the answers or 2) don't ask questions.

All press people -- and all White Houses -- work to manage storylines and narratives, often by shutting out reporters. But Trump's White House has taken it to a new level.

It began with then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer's scolding of reporters regarding the crowds at Trump's inauguration the day following the swearing-in. It continued with the decision not to hold on-camera daily briefings, an attempt to reduce the import of those events. And, now, this.

No one -- or very few people -- will be up in arms over a deputy press secretary refusing to answer questions from the media during a presidential trip. The media is deeply unpopular and regarded by many -- especially within the Republican Party -- as nosy busybodies who are hopelessly biased against Republicans.

But, consider this: You can hate the media. But, you should also be outraged by Gidley's refusal to answer any questions about the President and his statements. A democracy hinges on elected officials being held to account for what they say and do. When we allow the President and his staff to dictate what questions they answer -- or whether they answer questions at all -- we run the risk of sliding down a slippery slope away from a healthy democracy.

No matter your political bent, that should scare you.