President-Elect Trump Breaks With Long History Of Press Conferences | KERA News

President-Elect Trump Breaks With Long History Of Press Conferences

Dec 15, 2016
Originally published on January 5, 2017 1:00 pm

We've created this handy widget to track how long it has been since Donald Trump held a formal press conference and how many times he has tweeted in that time. It will keep counting until he holds one.

Why are we tracking this?

Unlike other ways of getting messages out, press conferences hold public officials more accountable to the American people because they have to answer questions in an uncontrolled environment.

"The public expects that a president isn't just going to announce something [but] that he's going to explain it and be able to answer questions about it," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University and director of the White House Transition Project.

For the second time as president-elect, Trump tweeted an announcement of a scheduled press conference, this time on Jan. 11.

Initially, Dec. 15 was to be the day Trump would hold his first press conference since winning the election. But it never happened, canceled before a time and place had been set. It was supposed to be about how Trump would address his potential business conflicts of interest as president. The rescheduled press conference has no such promised focus.

Already, no president-elect (dating to at least Jimmy Carter) has waited longer to hold a press conference. One irony — perhaps hypocrisy — of Trump's extended run without a press conference is just how critical he and his campaign were of rival Hillary Clinton's choice to go an extended period (276 days in total) without holding one. His campaign sent out daily press releases counting the days since her last press conference, headlined, "Hiding Hillary Watch" — and, at one point, Trump even tweeted about it:

Unless Trump holds a press conference by Jan. 21, one day after his inauguration, he will hit the very mark for which he ridiculed Clinton on Twitter.

Precedent favors frequent press conferences during transition

Two days after the Supreme Court decision that made George W. Bush president-elect in 2000, he held a press conference in Austin. He took questions from reporters about his potential Cabinet picks, whether he would call for tax cuts and when the weight of being the next president of the United States hit him.

The next day, Bush introduced his choice for secretary of state and took more questions. The day after that, he answered yet more questions during a press conference to introduce his national security adviser and White House counselors.

President-elect Barack Obama followed a similar pattern, regularly fielding questions from reporters, as he made choices about who would serve in his administration. In all, Obama fielded questions from the White House press corps on 18 different occasions as president-elect. George W. Bush, who had a shorter transition period, did so 11 times.

At this point, if president-elect Donald Trump were to hold a press conference every day starting today, he wouldn't hit Obama's mark for formal interactions with the press during the transition period.

As with so many other things, Trump is flouting this tradition. He hasn't held a press conference since July 27, when he called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails. "I will tell you this, Russia: If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump said at his resort in Doral, Fla. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."

Instead Trump has opted for rallies, press releases, photo ops, a handful of interviews and tweeting. Lots of tweeting.

On the day he announced his choice for secretary of state, Trump tweeted praise for his pick, Rex Tillerson, the chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, but didn't appear with him publicly. Trump did go down to the lobby of Trump Tower so he could be photographed with rapper Kanye West.

"Life," Trump said when asked what they talked about. "We discussed life."

Later, he held a victory rally in Wisconsin.

The first presidential press conference happened by accident

When an aide to President Woodrow Wilson invited newspapermen to meet the new president in 1913, the presidential press conference was born.

He wasn't expecting so many newsmen to show up. But since then, it has become a tradition, a fixture of the relationship between the president, the press and, by extension, the American public.

Based on an NPR analysis of data from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara over the past three administrations, the president has fielded questions from reporters on average about every 15 days.

CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, who meticulously tracks the activities of the president, says the longest drought between press conferences for President George W. Bush was 82 days, while the longest President Obama went without a press conference was 86.

But the traditions of the relationship between the president and the press don't appear to be a driving motivator for Trump and his transition team.

Appearing on the Hugh Hewitt radio show, Trump's future White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said things like the weekly radio address, or even the daily briefing by the press secretary — where members of the media are allowed to question the administration on policy and topics of the day — could change under Trump.

"The traditions, while some of them are great," Priebus said, "I think it's time to revisit a lot of these things that have been done in the White House, and I can assure you that change is going to happen."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This was supposed to be a big day - President-elect Donald Trump's first press conference since winning the presidency last month. He was supposed to talk specifically about how he would deal with conflicts of interest between his international business holdings and his job as president, but it is not happening, postponed, his team says, until January. And we're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who's been looking at how this compares to past presidencies. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So basic question here - is this normal?

KEITH: No. No, not at all. Typically, presidents-elect hold a press conference within a few days of winning, but Donald Trump hasn't held a press conference since July 27. That's actually the one where he suggested that Russia should hack Hillary Clinton's emails. Since then, he's done rallies, photo ops. He's tweeted a lot, but he hasn't held a formal press conference.

GREENE: But is this something that maybe journalists just obsess about? I mean, you know, he's said on Twitter that he's going to hold a press conference in the near future. His transition team saying it'll be January. I could see some people in the country saying, you know, I see him in interviews taking questions. You know, he communicates on social media. Is this that important?

KEITH: Well, unlike other ways of getting messages out, press conferences hold public officials and politicians more accountable to the American people because they have to answer questions that are - come in in sort of an uncontrolled environment. And if there's something that's problematic for the president, multiple reporters could ask about it in different ways to try to tease out what's really going on. And, you know, this isn't for us, the reporters, this is for the public. You know, we operate as a proxy for our listeners and our readers. I asked Martha Joynt Kumar about this. She studies the presidency and regularly attends press conferences at the White House. She's a political scientist.

MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: The public expects that a president isn't just going to announce something, that he's going to explain it and be able to answer questions about it.

KEITH: We've created a feature on the NPR website that's up now that tracks how long it's been since Donald Trump's last press conference and how many times he's tweeted since then.

GREENE: OK.

KEITH: And for the record, as of right now, it has been 140 days and 1,456 tweets.

GREENE: Those numbers going up, though, as we speak, I guess.

KEITH: Well, every time he tweets.

GREENE: What's it been like for past presidents during transitions?

KEITH: There are good records for both President George W. Bush and President Obama. Two days after the Supreme Court decision that made George W. Bush president-elect in 2000, he held a press conference in Austin. Ultimately, he held 11 during what was a shortened transition period. President-elect Barack Obama held 18 different press conferences. And as with many other things, President-elect Trump has - has flouted this tradition.

GREENE: Well, and does that tell us anything about what things will be like in terms of the relationship between the press and President Trump once he gets started?

KEITH: Yeah. You know, one irony in this is that Donald Trump had been so critical of his rival Hillary Clinton's choice to avoid having press conferences for what was ultimately 276 days. Yesterday, Trump's future chief of staff, Reince Priebus, went on the Hugh Hewitt radio show and said that many things that have been normal in the relationship between the White House and the press are - are up for grabs as they consider what the Trump White House will look like. Here's the tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REINCE PRIEBUS: The traditions, while some of them are great, I think it's time to revisit a lot of these things that have been done in the White House. And I can assure you that change is going to happen.

KEITH: Yeah, and Trump ran as a nontraditional candidate. Aides say there's no reason to believe that he would change that as president.

GREENE: OK, NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks a lot, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.