This week a photographer captured an image in the White House briefing room that quickly got the attention of the press corps: Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s file folder, in which she had neatly arranged possible topics as she faced reporters from the lectern.
Along with “golf,” “Barack Obama,” “BLM” and a number entries related to the coronavirus, there was “Karl.” That apparently was a reference to Jonathan Karl, ABC News’ chief White House correspondent who is completing a year-long term as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
That he was singled out is not altogether surprising: In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Karl wrote that McEnany’s briefings, the most visible part of her job, have turned into something resembling a campaign infomercial.
“Denying reality and using the White House podium for purely political purposes is a violation of public trust,” he wrote, adding that they “routinely include opening and closing messages that more closely resemble the monologues of a partisan political talk show than a public official’s briefing.”
As Karl said in an interview with Deadline on Friday, “There’s no question that every White House press secretary puts his or her boss in the best light. They can spin. They put forth the strongest arguments in favor of what the president’s policies and actions and words. But this is different. This goes beyond that.”
He added: “This might be my 15th press secretary, so I’ve talked with a lot of them. There’s a significant difference, a very important difference, between a press secretary for a president and a press secretary for a political candidate or for a political party.”
McEnany was just that, having taken her job in April after serving as national press secretary for President Donald Trump’s re-election bid. She came into the role already familiar to TV audiences, as she has been one of his most relentless defenders, not just on the campaign but in an earlier role at the Republican National Committee and as a CNN commentator. And in contrast to her predecessor, Stephanie Grisham, who held no official briefings during her tenure, McEnany brought them back. Although they are not daily, they are scheduled about three times a week.
“I will never lie to you, you have my word on that,” she said in her first briefing, on May 1.
Karl doesn’t want to use the word “lie,” as he says that is “implying an intent and a motivation.” But “she certainly has said things that were not factual.”
He cited an instance this week, when McEnany said that the idea of tension between the president and Dr. Anthony Fauci “couldn’t be further from the truth.” She said it just hours after Dan Scavino, a longtime close adviser to the president, tweeted out a cartoon mocking Fauci. That was “after the president himself repeatedly criticized” him, Karl noted. Then, Peter Navarro, the president’s top trade adviser, wrote a USA Today op-ed that tried to undermine Fauci’s credibility.
Karl also pointed to an incident from last week, when McEnany criticized the press for saying that Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech contributed to the culture war. “Then, the president, less than 24 hours later, says, ‘This is a culture war.'”
“People have complained about briefings being too political for as long as there have been briefings,” Karl said. “But this is a question of not being too political. This is a question of being really almost purely political.”
McEnany has not yet responded directly to Karl’s op-eds, and she did not immediately respond to Deadline‘s request for comment.
That Karl would earn his own entry in her files reflects the extent to which the briefings also have become exercises in bashing the media — not just for what reporters have written or broadcast, but for the types of questions that are asked or those that are not covered.
Some criticism has been warranted. In a briefing this week, McEnany was talking about the need to reopen schools, and said, “The science should not stand in the way of this.” The single quote quickly got retweeted. But in the rest of the quote, she insisted that the “science is very clear on this,” including a pediatric study that “the risk of critical illness from COVID is far less for children than that of seasonal flu.” Afterward, McEnany wrote that being taken out of context was a “case study in media bias.”
Yet few briefings go by where there is not some attack on a media outlet, often with McEnany well prepared to identify where she sees news outlets’ contradictions and inconsistencies, or to even ascribe certain motives.
In May, as Trump called upon state governors to allow churches to reopen “right now,” McEnany faced questions from reporters on the president’s authority to override a state.
A bit frustrated, she said to the reporters gathered, “Boy, it is interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.”
Reuters’ Jeff Mason, a former president of WHCA, objected to the remark.
Karl points to another incident that happened at Thursday’s briefing, when George Condon, reporter for the National Journal, asked about Trump’s Rose Garden speech earlier in the week, a nearly hourlong ramble of attacks on Joe Biden. A number of reporters said that it was unusual to have such a blatant campaign rally-type speech delivered on the grounds.
“Is there any place in the White House where you think politics is inappropriate, and where do draw the line?” Condon asked.
McEnany, though, was defensive, quickly noting that the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on the job, exempts the president and vice president.
But Condon said that was not his question. “The Hatch Act has nothing to do with this, though.”
McEnany shot back, “Your real problem was the fact that the president gave a good, powerful speech from the Rose Garden.”
Karl said that it was an example of how McEnany “is twisting everything around in a way just to basically define it in a way that she thinks is going to help the president politically. In a situation like that, there is no information, no insight into the president’s thinking. It’s just playing politics and trying to undermine the credibility of the reporters that are asking the questions, rather than trying to inform the reporters that are asking the questions.”
Karl said that McEnany has been accessible to reporters, who can go up to her office that is midway between the briefing room and the Oval Office. After her first briefing, he said that he went to her and even told her that she did a good job. “I wasn’t commenting on the substance of what she was saying, but she took questions from all the reporters, she seemed to have done all her homework and provided answers, but quickly the briefings became more of a lecture to the press than answering questions from the press.”
The briefings even have a routine: an opening monologue on some issue the White House wants covered (this week it has been violence in cities run by Democrats), followed by questions, then wrapping it up in a kind of coda. She has had made a point of having the last word, whether it be a quick jab at the media or a defense of her boss. On Thursday, for example, she defended Trump’s pandemic records vs. his predecessors, insisting that the president “didn’t pause testing, the Obama-Biden administration did, and that was a shameful decision.”
Usually the briefings last a crisp 20-22 minutes, and McEnany’s ability to navigate through the press corps is a testament of her skills at preparation, promotion and deflection.
Karl said that his worry is that this becomes the norm for future administrations, but also that “you end up in a place where there is no trusted information.” As it is now, he said, “I really worry how … half the country doesn’t trust anything that is said by anybody in this building, and the other half of the country almost doesn’t trust in the newspaper or television news. And it’s because all information is seen as partisan, as political. It’s like there is no objective truth. That is not sustainable.”
That trust is especially important at times of a national crisis — a terrorist attack, major accident or, as is happening now, a pandemic.
The irony is that, as much as McEnany may be trying to make the boss look good, Trump has fallen further behind Biden in the polls, particularly when it comes to handling the coronavirus crisis. Some advisers already are suggesting other approaches. On Friday, Kellyanne Conway suggested on Fox & Friends that Trump return to the nightly appearances he made in the spring.
Those briefings, too, at times veered into something akin to a Trump rally. Karl, who recently published Front Row at the Trump Show, argues that is not what briefings were set up to do.
“Every press secretary goes out there and they’re doing the best to make the boss look good,” Karl said. “But it’s not like a staged infomercial. They have to deal with uncomfortable questions and give uncomfortable truths. You can’t just stand there at the podium and make it up because it sounds better for the president. You got to deal with a set of facts, and you have a responsibility to accurately present those facts.”