the national interest

White House Briefings Are Democracy Theater. That’s Why Trump Is Clamping Down.

Clinton administration press secretary Joe Lockhardt answering questions from White House reporters. Photo: Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, President Trump denounced CNN’s Jim Acosta as a “terrible” person, and then the Trump administration engaged in a display of dominance by seizing Acosta’s hard pass and circulating a doctored video purporting to show that he had struck a White House intern. When a court ruled that the White House had improperly violated due process, it obligingly produced a “due process.” The result is a formalized system for institutionalizing the overbearing relationship with the national media that Trump has always craved.

The United Kingdom has a marvelous institution called “Question Time,” during which the opposition party lobs pointed and frequently insulting questions at the prime minister, while members of rival parties jeer at each other. In the U.S., the legislature has no such role. Floor debates in Congress are tedious and scripted, and don’t include the president at all. The president’s briefings with the media provide the closest equivalent to question time. The news media perform the role of opposition, forcing the administration to explain and defend its actions and positions.

The Trump administration’s new rules define and circumscribe how reporters conduct themselves in these sessions. The rules state:

1. A journalist called upon to ask a question will ask a single question and then will yield the floor to other journalists;

2. At the discretion of the president or other White House official taking questions, a follow-up question or questions may be permitted; and where a follow up has been allowed and asked, the questioner will then yield the floor;

3. “Yielding the floor” includes, when applicable, physically surrendering the microphone to White House staff for use by the next questioner;

4. Failure to abide by any of rules (1) - (3) may result in suspension or revocation of the journalist’s hard pass.

What gives these rules a patina of legitimacy is their proximate target: Acosta. Like many subjects of free-speech controversies, Acosta makes for an unlovable protagonist. He is fond of preening, more-of-a-comment-than-a-question questions that can’t really be answered, but which instead seem intended to position Acosta as the brave face of independent media.

But the remedy to Acosta’s performances is far worse than the disease. The White House rules would literally forbid reporters from shouting out follow-up questions when the president or the press secretary lies or evades their questions, and permit the White House to punish such effrontery by revoking their White House pass.

The putative need for these rules is to enforce “decorum.” Numerous reporters have pointed out that Trump has no standing to demand decorum. But the problem is deeper than that. It’s not just that Trump is a hypocrite. Decorum is the wrong standard altogether. Reporters should follow some basic guidelines — they should not interrupt prepared remarks, or hog the microphone habitually — but they not only can but should behave brusquely.

Interactions between the media and the White House are a form of democracy theater. The give-and-take is a tangible and living sign of the fact that in a republic, the president is not a monarch but is simply a citizen like everybody else. In authoritarian regimes, the palpably cowed news media treats leaders with a deference that communicates their inviolable status.

Trump’s authoritarian instincts and his bullying persona bear directly on his administration’s attempts to rein in the media. It is not ironic that the first reality-show-trained insult comic to be elected president is also the first one to impose rules of decorum on the press corps. Trump is imposing on the media the social terms in which he has always demanded to operate: a culture in which he can berate and bully others, but must be treated in turn with obeisance. The most tangible sign sign of any hierarchical relationship is one in which one of the parties must be polite but the other is free to engage in abuse.

A world in which Trump can brush aside cogent questions by calling reporters stupid, and in which they can’t even request an answer, would be the opposite of democracy theater. It would conscript the White House press corps into a regular televised performance of Trump’s monarchial fantasies.

Trump Clamping Down on White House Press Corps