Core practices of open government are eroding in the Trump Administration, with new limitations on the ability of the press to effectively question officials on U.S. foreign policy.
In May 2016, the State Department held a press briefing nearly every weekday of the month, with only two exceptions. One of them was Memorial Day.
In May 2017, by contrast, there was not a single State Department press briefing. The last briefing was on April 27. And if anyone was wondering, “There will not be a press briefing today,” the Bureau of Public Affairs website says again today.
Nor can this be explained away by the fact that the Trump Administration is still comparatively new. As of May 2009, the early Obama Administration was already holding press briefings at the State Department three or four times each week.
Some might take these press briefings for granted or dismiss them as insignificant and self-serving, if not occasionally misleading. But that would be a mistake.
Daily press briefings both represent and reinforce a culture of open government. They are a window into the workings of the Administration, an expression of official self-understanding, a forum for challenging that understanding, and an opportunity to ask questions on almost any foreign policy subject, profound or trivial. (Why did Secretary Clinton appear “a little ill,” a reporter wanted to know in a May 1, 2009 briefing. Had she been exposed to the swine flu outbreak in Mexico? No, it was just “mild allergies,” the briefer said.)
The questions that might have been asked at a State Department briefing last week are obviously numerous and urgent. What does it mean that the US is now linked with Nicaragua and Syria as the only countries to actively reject the Paris Agreement on climate change? What are the implications of heightened European cooperation with China in the wake of the Trump Administration withdrawal from the Paris Agreement? What was actually gained compared to what was lost by withdrawal?
Such questions will of course be asked and discussed by others. But in an ominous departure from previous norms, an official State Department briefing was not held to discuss them with the press in a standard, predictable, public format. The loss to open government is tangible. The President’s eccentric tweets are not an acceptable substitute.
In practice, it might have been hard even for a skilled briefer to explain the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, because it does not seem to have been based on any rational policy calculation. The President’s own Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at his confirmation hearing that the smart move for the US was to adhere to the Paris Agreement. “I think we are better served by being at that table than leaving that table.” That divergence of opinion would itself have been a worthy topic for exploration in a regular press briefing.
Prior to confirmation, Secretary Tillerson also said that “[…] accountability and transparency includes communicating with the public, while engaging with its representation in Congress and the press. If confirmed, I will be sure to interact with the press appropriately, based upon long-standing precedents of the State Department and my predecessors in dealing both with American reporters and the foreign press.”
Those precedents have now been violated.
Update: Although no general press briefings were held by the State Department in May 2017, there were nine “special briefings” on specified topics during the month.
Update 2: The State Department held its first daily press briefing in five weeks on June 6.