When I was White House communications director for President Barack Obama I would warn the White House press corps that they were living on borrowed time.
At the Obama White House, we often chose to go outside regular channels to communicate with the American public. Still, we respected the institutional importance of the press corps and the importance of engaging with journalists dedicated to covering the president day in and day out.
But in a digital age, with the proliferation of communication platforms, the media were eventually going to need a better answer for why 50 or so reporters deserved daily access to the White House — access not available to other outlets and the general public.
Now, the clock has run out. The ultimate disrupter, in the form of President Donald Trump, is seeking to change nearly every rule that presidents and the reporters who cover them have lived by.
This phenomenon was on vivid display Friday with the resignation of press secretary Sean Spicer and appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director.
Scaramucci is well-suited to be Trump’s White House communications director. He is a more sincere representation of what Trump seeks in a spokesperson than Spicer. Scaramucci projects all that Trump respects — wealth, scrappiness, loyalty and an impressive ability to dissemble while defending Trump on television. If you are looking for someone to “communicate” what this president values, Scaramucci is a good choice.
Spicer was a vestige from the initial era of the Trump White House when Washington regulars joined hoping to “professionalize” this very unconventional president. It was immediately apparent that Spicer would fail in that endeavor as he was forced by the president to so famously lie about the crowd size at the inauguration. It has been a long, slow, painful slog to the inevitable moment when Spicer would quit. For his sake, I wish it had happened on Jan. 21.
Judging from his and Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s turns in the White House briefing room Friday, it seems that Scaramucci, not the White House press secretary, may be the one doing on-camera press briefings. That’s unusual.
In the Obama White House, as with its predecessors, the press secretary, and not the communications director, faced reporters every day. This practice reflected Obama’s belief that the president has an obligation to the American media. Appointing a single individual — accountable to both the president and the press — to answer questions on camera and on a regular basis was the most important means of fulfilling that duty.
Having the communications director serve as on-camera spokesperson seems an apt metaphor for Trump’s disdainful view of the press. In his mind, reporters do not exist to press him for answers on behalf of the American people but to communicate whatever message Trump chooses to give the American public.
While recent White House practice has been to hold off-camera briefings, it seems the Scaramucci era will be televised. Taking advantage of his considerable television skills was the point in hiring him. But reporters need to be careful to not be lured into providing a platform for a Trump propaganda show simply because a White House official is willing to go on camera. It is more likely that Scaramucci will use the press room lectern to communicate whatever he chooses, not sincerely engage in answering reporters’ questions. At that point that room is no longer the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room — it’s a television set, with a “White House” plaque behind Scaramucci as an attractive prop.
The media has other soul-searching to do here, too. The Obama White House conducted daily on-camera briefings, but — let’s be honest — these weren’t usually occasions of high-brow discourse. There was a near-incessant drive by the media to sensationalize whatever was the story of the day in a way that I believe gave the public a distorted picture of the true nature of the issues at hand. Surely, there were moments our side could have done more to improve the tone of the discussion, too. But most days — day in and day out — our press secretaries worked diligently and sincerely to answer questions and do so truthfully.
To lose this give and take — either by refusing to turn on the cameras or by putting a showman at the podium — would be a significant blow to an accountable democracy.
Palmieri served as White House communications director from 2013 to 2015 and was communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.