Well that didn’t take long. In her first three briefings, White House Press Secretary Kaleigh McEnany has shown that she views her much heralded return to the podium as a chance to read from prepared scripts, praise her boss effusively, spread dubious claims about what he has done to control the spread of COVID-19, and accuse the media of bias in favor of his political opponents.
The former conservative commentator, carefully coiffed, perfectly made-up and impressively showing nary a sign of nerves, turned what used to be important opportunities to enhance the public’s understanding of President Donald Trump’s policies or goals into little more than a show-and-tell, complete with graphs and an appearance by a Trump-loving U.S. flag manufacturer.
Once she was done answering the questions for which she had obviously rehearsed, she abruptly ended her first briefing by urging everyone to watch Fox News and bizarrely reminding people of the television ratings for Trump’s coronavirus briefings — as if that matters. She ended her second briefing by reciting a list of reports by various news organizations which she considers inaccurate. At her third, confronted with her 2015 criticism of Trump statements as “racist,” she blamed it on “naively believing” CNN headlines.
Hardly a way to build bridges to one of the fundamental institutions of our democracy.
Broken trust on day one
It was obvious that McEnany was performing for an audience of one. No doubt he was pleased. Whether reporters were is another matter. But that’s not what she was sent out to do.
At her first briefing, on May 1, McEnany pledged to never lie from the podium. Then she made misleading or false statements about the convicted former national security adviser Michael Flynn (whose case the Justice Department just moved to drop), the FBI investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, and Michigan protesters opposed to the governor’s orders to social distance, among other topics. She used her second briefing to misrepresent what the Trump administration was doing on COVID-19, and said Saturday that the FBI tried to manufacture a crime against Flynn.
After over 13 months without a press briefing, White House reporters were presumptuous to “welcome” McEnany back to the podium. It is not their podium. Nor is it hers. Like the presidency itself, it belongs to the American people.
Previous press secretaries of both parties were always strong advocates for their presidents’ policies. But they respected the fact that as the senior spokesperson for the executive branch, they had a nobler calling than being pit-bull political partisans or mindless cheerleaders, especially when speaking from the podium in the White House James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.
Think for a moment of some of the men and women who preceded McEnany: Pierre Salinger, Bill Moyers, Jim Brady, Marlin Fitzwater, Dee Dee Myers, Mike McCurry, and Joe Lockhart, among many others. What made them great was that they refrained from gratuitous attacks on reporters, media outlets and the opposite political party. Instead they defended their bosses in thoughtful, if sometimes pointed, discussions of specific policies and the broader question of the proper role of government.
Beyond that, they understood and appreciated the role of reporters in a democracy and knew it was both a privilege and an awesome responsibility to speak from what is arguably the most prestigious, powerful podium in the world.
Sacred obligation to America
The three presidential press secretaries for whom I worked — Jim Brady, Larry Speakes and Marlin Fitzwater — viewed their daily press briefings as the most important part of the job, and went to great lengths to prepare for their encounters with the White House press corps. They did so not because they cared about celebrity (their briefings were not televised) but because they believed that the people, through questions posed by the press, were entitled to an explanation of what the administration was doing. They knew that how they conducted themselves and what they said mattered. They viewed themselves not just as champions for the president, but as spokesmen for the U.S. government. They had a sense of history.
That was because our boss, Ronald Reagan, had a similar view of his own presidency. Reagan knew he was elected to put in place the agenda he had campaigned on, but he also knew that as president of all the people, he had a sacred obligation to go beyond partisanship and do what was best for the country. Everyone who served in the Reagan White House understood that, too. He made it clear to all of us that he and we worked for the American people, who had a right to be informed. It’s hard to imagine that Trump has told his team to put the country’s interests ahead of his.
Military questions: Trump says he supports the troops. His record suggests otherwise.
Some have questioned whether McEnany should be given a podium to mislead, dissemble, make false claims, and say things she knows are at variance with the truth. It’s a good question.
Her performance so far dishonors her position, the memory of the man for whom the White House Press Briefing Room is named and the very podium from which she speaks, and ultimately does not serve her boss well. Yet even if they continue to be no more than opportunities to preach Trump’s gospel and criticize his opponents, press briefings establish a record on which the Trump administration can be judged. If for no other reason, Kayleigh McEnany’s resumption of the time-honored and uniquely American practice of standing before the White House press corps, and responding to questions on a regular basis, is a good thing.
Mark Weinberg, an executive speechwriter and communications consultant, was Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House, and Director of Public Affairs in the office of former President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of the best-selling memoir, “Movie Nights with the Reagans.” Follow him on Twitter: @MarkWeinberg40
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kayleigh McEnany is already making misleading and false claims on Trump