The PR rep for the free world is MIA

President Trump's unique communications strategy means his press secretary Stephanie Grisham contributes little to the administration's narrative, either as a democratic check and balance or a vehicle for de-escalation.

The White House press briefing room hasn't seen much action over the past year. (Photo credit: Getty Images.)
The White House press briefing room hasn't seen much action over the past year. (Photo credit: Getty Images.)

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham first registered bright on the radar last June during one of President Donald Trump’s trips to North Korea to consort with Kim Jong Un.

Grisham’s physical robustness early in her tenure to ensure American reporters could view the two supreme leaders at a summit would have played well with the White House press corps. It was reported at the time she literally got into an "all-out brawl" with North Korean officials and was bruised in the scuffle.

Of course, her actions were as much about ensuring the optics didn’t indicate the North Koreans were dictating proceedings after Trump’s historic handshake with Kim in the demilitarized zone between the North and South as they were about placating U.S. journalists. But the incident at least suggested Grisham would adopt a more cooperative approach to the press corps than her predecessor Sarah Sanders.

Six months on, any such illusion has been shattered. If anything, Grisham has doubled down on the no-access policy, confining her press exposure to cable media appearances, principally on Fox News, where she has given 26 extended interviews since last August.

This has been particularly noticeable in the past couple of weeks during the prospect of potential military conflict with Iran, a time during which Americans are used to seeing developments explained via regular White House communiqués.

But Grisham still hasn’t done a formal White House press briefing. The last one took place a record 312 days ago, under Sanders’ watch, on March 11, 2019. Prior to that, Sanders only conducted two in the prior 81 days and had already set a record for the longest time with no on-camera briefings.

Grisham spent two years as first lady Melania Trump’s communications director before adding main White House press secretary duties as well as the communications director function.

On the surface this might seem a demanding brief, but her anonymity across all three areas of responsibility has led to an outpouring of opprobrium and even accusations that she is the worst-ever White House press secretary.

It prompted a group of 13 former press secretaries, foreign-service and military officials from both sides of the political divide to release an open letter last week calling for the restoration of regular White House and other press briefings.

Also last week, high-profile authors Don Winslow and Stephen King pledged to donate $75,000 each to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in Grisham’s name - if she held "a one hour press conference ‘this week’ with the full White House press corps."

Grisham and, by extension, Trump’s contention is that the press conferences merely give the White House hacks the opportunity to "grandstand" for the TV cameras. Yesterday, she told Fox News the press "don't want information, because my team and I give them information every single day." She believes "they want their moment on TV so they can peddle their books."

She says she talks to "five, six, seven reporters from every single outlet, print, radio, and online" every day, but that "it's just not on TV." She indicated that, if she does decide to hold a press briefing, "maybe we do it off-camera… because then the grandstanding won't happen." Of course, doing it that way also allows her to pick and choose the questions she wants to answer.

This impasse is unlikely to be broken and it would not be surprising if there were no press briefings between now and the election in November. And, if Trump wins, he’d likely conclude that, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

But, with all due respect to Grisham’s comments, there are more important factors involved in the concept of press briefings than reporters selling books and President Trump using Twitter and White House lawn helicopter chats as his main vehicle for communicating with the American people.

For one, there is no more serious decision a president has to make than to use military force and put American men and women in uniform in harm’s way. Before making such a decision, the person entrusted with that responsibility should be accountable for answering questions about how that authority is wielded.

There should be scrutiny of that decision and skeptical questions to face down, whatever political party or hue you represent.

The president is commander-in-chief and has the authority to order military action. But having a civilian-led military means its leader is accountable to the people - particularly if that authority is wielded to do the most significant thing you can do. It’s democracy in action.

A separate benefit of having a spokesperson talking regularly about the day’s events in a way that not only the American public but also the nation’s adversaries hear it, is that those pronouncements don’t carry as much weight as when the president says them.

That can be particularly useful when an administration wants to talk tough. If the only person who’s talking is the president, it limits the opportunities for de-escalation of events.

A good press secretary conveys a message without coming across as menacing or threatening, because their persona is not loaded with as much authority. When you’re trying to deescalate a situation that can be a really effective tool.

As of now, everything comes from President Trump, either on Twitter or via a staid official statement where he’s flanked by the cabinet and a bunch of high-ranking guys in military uniform.

The optics during the Iran episode came across as either starkly escalatory or, conversely, looking like he’s furiously backpedaling, something he doesn’t like to be seen to be doing. That could be avoided by smart use of the press secretary function.

Trump would argue his stance showed Iran the U.S. means business and stymied the force of its retaliation, ultimately leading it to climb down.

But that approach is reminiscent of a poker player going all in on the river, and doesn’t give the president another card to play. In the midst of the back and forth of the past three weeks, it would have been helpful to have a spokesperson out there talking tough so the president didn’t have to.

It wouldn’t have been as destabilizing and wouldn’t have come over as threatening, but would still have got the point across effectively. And, even if it didn’t, there would still be another tool to pull out of the box, such as a presidential speech or statement.

History has shown the more diplomatic press secretary approach has defused many situations without the president having to get involved publicly, while still exerting power and pulling strings in the background.

One final role of the press secretary and regular press briefings worth bearing in mind is the ability to force the traditionally slow-moving bureaucracy to act.

If it’s known that a senior official - the press secretary - is speaking to the media at 1:00pm and there’s a question very likely to be asked, it forces the bureaucracy to come up with a credible answer or solution and move the ball forward.

The press secretary can’t very well go out onto the dais and say the administration "hasn’t figured it out yet."

Trump is known to have grown frustrated that the only person able to communicate on his behalf and cut through was himself. In some ways he brought that on himself by undermining previous press secretaries such as Sean Spicer, but in other ways he simply hasn’t chosen very good people. So he’s ended up carrying all the weight of the administration’s communication.

It places much more of a burden on him than if he had someone credible in the White House press room he trusted and supported and was defending him for an hour a day. Most other presidents regarded that as a real asset.

Clearly he’s playing a very different game than everyone else and placing all that burden on his Twitter feed. That works with his base support, but doesn’t help with other functions of government, such as navigating a tricky conflict situation or dealing with complicated trade relationships.

Whoever the next person is in the White House press secretary role will face an interesting conundrum in deciding whether to reestablish the norms of the past. I highly doubt they’ll go back to doing a briefing every day - it would be more logical to do it two to three times a week.

But a return to some sort of normalcy would be good for democracy and and a useful arrow for the administration's bow.

"He’s his own best spokesperson… also, he’s the most accessible president in history," claimed Stephanie Grisham of President Trump on Fox & Friends recently.

She may well genuinely believe that to be the case.

But I’m afraid she herself has squandered any short-lived goodwill she might have gained in North Korea and her White House press secretary tenure is undermining the credibility of the highest-profile PR job in the world.

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