Donald Trump's fourth press secretary passes test in briefing room debut – but real challenges lie ahead

'The briefing environment contrasted with earlier ones held by [Ms] Sanders that often had an out-of-control feel,' says presidential scholar Martha Kumar

John T. Bennett
Washington
@BennettJohnT
Friday 01 May 2020 20:43
comments
Trump's new press secretary vows never to lie from podium

Kayleigh McEnany, Donald Trump's fourth press secretary, is from the South. And any Florida resident probably knows a thing or two about college football.

And, back when Americans played and watched organised sports in those pre-pandemic days, college football fans spent months debating whether this team or that one is a real championship contender. Does, say, No. 7 Utah or No. 20 Appalachian State pass the so-called 'eye test'?

Though some college pigskin fans dismiss the eye test, it can be useful in ruling out the Mountaineers as a long shot College Football Playoff contender while seeing that the Utes likely will be in the mix come December.

In short, the 'eye test' is about whether a team, or in this case, a press secretary meets the standard of a serious player.

Ms McEnany easily passed on Friday during the first White House briefing led by a press secretary since Sarah Huckabee Sanders left the White House last summer. In fact, Ms Sanders's final appearance behind the blue lectern in the James S. Brady Briefing Room was March 11, 2019.

So, before a black-clad Ms McEnany stepped behind the lectern, it had been nearly 14 months since a press secretary performed this essential part of communicating the president's stance or thinking on a myriad issues -- or what federal agencies are working on to inform or implement one of his decisions.

In terms of tone, preparedness, professionalism and comfort level, Ms McEnany was impressive during her first nationally televised briefing.

For good reason, she did her undergraduate work at Georgetown University, and later graduated from Harvard Law School. Unlike Sean Spicer, Ms Sanders and the almost-invisible Stephanie Grisham before her, Ms McEnany has been prepared for the big stage, the bright lights and the tough questions.

She was much more in the mold of Josh Earnest, Barack Obama's final press secretary, or Dana Perino, who held the job under George W. Bush, than Mr Spicer or Ms Sanders. Ms McEnany's use of a binder, through which she flipped throughout, to convey information or prepared remarks is a positive sign -- though reporters sometimes groan when canned responses are coming.

It's a very Josh Earnest move, and the Obama aide was always well-prepared and clearly had access to the president and senior policy aides. It also suggests she and her staff are thinking hard about what they want to say in the briefing room, which suggests she is trying to inject some order and professionalism into the always-chaotic Trump White House, which so often has felt like a flying-by-a-seat-of-its-pants operation.

Reporter after reporter welcomed her to the briefing room, an attempt by the White House press corps to build some rapport that was lacking under Mr Spicer and Ms Sanders, and often non-existent under Ms Grisham.

"She is Smoother than her predecessors -- which means she has the dexterity of a first-year law student," said Brian Karem, who covers the White House for Playboy magazine.

"She promised not to lie. Her method is to spin out of the question, return the question back to reporters and move on. She operated adequately in front of a depleted press corps," added Mr Karem, who has covered every US president since Ronald Reagan for CBS News, local NBC affiliates, "America's Most Wanted," two newspapers and now Playboy.

To that point, there was less of a room to command on Friday. The White House Correspondents Association, which controls briefing room seating and the West Wing press area has put in place Covid-19 restrictions that have only about two dozen reporters in the usually 49-seat room -- where other reporters, including Mr Karem, usually stand in the side aisles.

That means "the real challenge will be when that room is full and more reporters are there following up on her many non-answers," he said. "To her credit, she never used the term 'Fake News,' instead encouraging the press to cover stories the Trump base believes instead of actual facts."

Reporters, to be sure, will inevitably resist if she continues to push stories almost exclusively being covered by right-leaning and far-right networks and publications.

Another challenge when working for Donald Trump will be living up to this pledge: "I will never lie to you. You have my word on that." He has uttered, according to the Washington Post, more than 18,000 false and misleading statements since taking office – and usually expects his employees to repeat them.

By suggesting no American has passed away because of lack of access to a ventilator since the coronavirus outbreak began, Ms McEnany already has tiptoed up to that line.

Another will be avoiding being a taxpayer-funded Trump propagandist. Fox News and other conservative media outlets already have plenty of those. CNN and MSNBC, for that matter, also do.

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She tiptoed up to that line, too, when she alleged that a reporter's taking a breath was evidence he agrees with Mr Trump that the FBI investigation that led to federal charges against his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, amount to a "miscarriage of justice."

"You hesitated," she told the reporter, repeating Mr Trump's contention that FBI investigators were out to get both Mr Flynn and her new boss.

But, once the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, Ms McEnany will again face the 'eye test' standard. As one longtime observer of presidential and press relations notes, she then could have to face over 100 screaming reporters at once.

"She came to the Briefing Room ready to provide information; not to fight with reporters She furnished supporting information in responding to reporters' queries, though she did so consistent with positions the president has taken on policy and events," said Martha Kumar of the Presidential Transition Project.

"The briefing environment contrasted with earlier ones held by [Ms] Sanders that often had an out-of-control feel as the 125 or so assembled reporters sought to pose their questions," Ms Kumar said. "With only 14 reporters asking questions, there was time for them to pose their queries with follow ups. It was a more tranquil environment than earlier sessions in that room."

Tranquil is not something to which Ms McEnany should get accustomed. After all, she's now working directly for Donald Trump.

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