Mark Morgan shows Stephanie Grisham how to brief reporters — if only she would
Acting Customs and Border Protection head Mark Morgan took to the White House briefing room Monday to hail another significant decline (22 percent) in illegal border crossings in August and to answer reporters’ questions.
Morgan has now done more press briefings — one — than White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham has done in two and a half months on the job. He’s also done half as many as previous press secretary Sarah Sanders did in the first six months of 2019 combined.
Morgan’s appearance in the room designated to host White House briefings was telling when it comes to the White House’s continued refusal to conduct them. He commanded the room, because he came with a story to tell and was ready to deal with complex issues. He lauded the progress but also warned Mexico not to get complacent when it comes to reducing the flow of undocumented immigrants from Central America. He even provided some clarity on a tough story for the Trump administration: the Bahamians who were turned away after ferrying over to seek humanitarian assistance from Hurricane Dorian. (Morgan said there was some “confusion” but that Bahamians would be allowed in with expeditious processing.)
So if Morgan can do it, why not Grisham? The White House has taken to complaining in recent days that the president’s good news isn’t being covered, including writing a Washington Examiner op-ed making that case (nevermind that many outlets including The Washington Post wrote about nearly all of the stories it was accused of ignoring). Holding briefings would seem to be a great way to drive a narrative and emphasize the good news. Yet the White House hasn’t held a formal briefing in nearly six months, since March 11.
This is hardly a new story, but it’s often covered as if briefings are some kind of favor to journalists that the White House has decided to withhold. That’s wrong: Briefings have traditionally been as much for the White House as for the journalists. This is where you set the agenda and push a message. This is where you go when you have good news to tout, as Morgan did Monday.
Yes, Morgan spent plenty of time speaking to the Audience of One — hailing the decline in border crossings as solely attributable to Trump and his administration and also arguing there is more progress on the border wall than the media would have you believe. It smacked of political boosterism, which isn’t necessarily what you want from the head of CBP.
But that’s also kind of the point when it comes to Grisham. She could do the same thing, albeit from a less politically problematic position. She could joust with reporters who supposedly aren’t being fair to Trump, and call them out with the cameras rolling. She could correct the record when she feels the media gets something wrong, rather than writing op-eds a week later.
That she hasn’t done a briefing and that Sanders avoided them is as much an indictment of their and the president’s rhetorical consistency as it is a strategic choice. Spokespeople are supposed to be able to parry tough questions and to make sure their message is the one that penetrates. They’re supposed to know what the president’s position is on something and be able to communicate it. The White House has apparently calculated that’s just too difficult to do, and that its spokespeople can’t drive a message while taking questions from reporters.
The White House has apparently decided that Trump gets to drive the message, by doing regular, brief Q&As with reporters — what have effectively become the daily briefing. But Trump is often completely unfamiliar with the details of policy and difficult to pin down on things as reporters shout questions over whirring helicopter blades. Morgan showed Monday that briefings can be much more fruitful — both for reporters and for the White House.
That the White House won’t help itself by doing them regularly says a whole lot.