Kayleigh McEnany is Trying to Tear the White House Press Corps Apart. It’s Time for Them to Come Together.
If there’s one thing at which this White House excels, it is dividing people. Stoking disagreement. Generating friction. It’s a strategy which won President Donald Trump the 2016 election, and figures to be his only chance this time around.
And now, that strategy is being employed by the administration’s chief spokesperson in the briefing room. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany is trying to turn the reporters who occupy the socially distant chairs in the James Brady briefing room against each other. A frosty exchange between two correspondents on Friday shows that her tactics just might be working.
The sequence began with Jeff Mason of Reuters trying to get McEnany to explain the president’s change in tone on the coronavirus. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll ignore the absurdity of the changing tone narrative, captured well by The Daily Show last week.) Mason rattled off a list of actions undertaken by Trump in the past few days — including his promotion of mask wearing and cancellation of the Republican convention in Florida — and asked McEnany, “What changed this week? Why did his tone change?”
The press secretary audaciously stated “there has been no change” in Trump’s tone, and focused her response specifically on the president’s comments relating to masks.
Mason’s query was far more broad than that, but he felt it important to challenge McEnany on her preposterous claim that Trump has always been a mask advocate.
“If you look back and see when he called [mask wearing] politically correct, for example, that wasn’t exactly agreeing with the science of wearing masks. But setting that aside — ”
“Let’s not set that aside,” McEnany said, interjecting — and went on to grill Mason about an incident in which Trump asked him to remove his mask at a press conference. She proceeded to distract and filibuster for more than a minute. When she was finished, she called on Jon Decker of Fox News radio for the next question. Only, Mason wanted to follow up and get an answer to the question he’d asked.
“I just want to clarify one thing, Kayleigh,” Mason said.
McEnany then threatened to skip over Decker as Mason kept talking.
“Okay, Jon no longer has a question,” McEnany said. “Anyone else?”
Decker, faced with the prospect of being bypassed, asked Mason to yield.
“I don’t want to talk over — if you don’t mind, Jeff, maybe we can come back to you,” Decker said.
“I would like to finish my question,” said Mason.
“Yeah, well…” Decker shot back. “Let me ask my question.”
McEnany seized on the two reporters bickering with each other, and heightened the tension by stirring up class warfare of sorts.
“When everyone in the front rows get five questions, people in the back row don’t even get the opportunity to ask questions,” she said.
“But you’re not answering the questions,” Mason protested — to no avail. The session moved on. Decker asked his question. Predictably, Mason did not get another chance.
The frustration from Mason and Decker during this exchange is understandable. Mason asked a question, and received no answer. Yes, he’d gotten two-and-a-half minutes of time — more than most reporters get from McEnany in these hit-and-run briefings. But most of that was filled by useless bluster from the press secretary. Mason had extracted nothing of substance.
As for Decker, every reporter who’s ever been elbowed out of the way by a big shot from the major daily in town, or one of the nationals, can empathize. He was on the verge of getting shut out of the briefing, at the expense of a reporter who had already eaten through almost three minutes. McEnany, very clearly, was about to blow past Decker to enforce a completely arbitrary rule that she created — for the dual purpose of avoiding a tough question, and sowing discord among the press corps. Mason was having no luck, and so Decker just wanted his turn.
But while their exasperation is justified, both Mason and Decker need to avoid taking McEnany’s bait. They have to be better.
Everyone in that room has to be better.
Kayleigh McEnany’s tenure as press secretary has been nothing short of a disgrace. She — unfathomably — has made her predecessors shine by comparison. Next to McEnany, Sean Spicer looks like a pillar of honesty. Sarah Sanders, a beacon of transparency.
The McEnany briefing typically features opening and closing statements which are stuffed with propaganda — often about topics other than the one on every American’s mind, the coronavirus. In between, there are absurd dodges, outrageous lies, and fights with reporters. The press secretary battles with the big-name correspondents seated up front, tosses out some rote statements for the lesser-knowns in the rear, tees up OAN’s correspondent for a softball, and calls it a day.
It is plainly obvious that if the press corps ever hopes to get anything remotely resembling a straight answer out of Kayleigh McEnany, they are going to have to work together. For those who dwell in the back rows, that might require allowing the stars up front handle the heavy lifting. For the A-listers, it may be necessary to let a rival steal the show. For everyone, it could mean abandoning the questions they planned to ask.
After all, what good are the questions they’re asking now anyway? What’s the point of asking a question that doesn’t get a real response? A cynic would argue that the answer is: personal glory. The more confrontational reporters in the room have undoubtedly gained in stature during this administration. Several of them have written best-selling books. Others have scored lucrative contributor contracts on top of their primary gigs. Time on camera can mean money.
But right now, the reporters in that room owe it to their viewers and readers to sacrifice that camera time, if necessary, and work with each other. Because the every person for themselves free-for-all is accomplishing nothing. In the McEnany era, the bar has gotten so low that if the press corps can get so much as a single genuine answer in a given briefing, that briefing is a success.
The strategy of teaming up has worked before. During one memorable 2018 session, Sarah Sanders tried to evade a tough line of inquiry from NBC’s Hallie Jackson by calling on The Hill’s Jordan Fabian. But Fabian demurred, and gave way to Jackson. As a result, Sanders was unable to wriggle off the hook.
Together, the White House correspondents must decide that they are going to insist on substance from that podium. They might fail in that quest, for sure. But if they do, at least they will further expose the press secretary as a fraud — unwilling or unable to talk straight with the American people in a time of crisis.
Kayleigh McEnany has declared war on the White House press corps. The journalists, in response, have only one choice.
Joe DePaolo is a Senior Editor for Mediaite.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.