Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”
Yesterday, Sean Spicer walked out to the press briefing podium at the White House, smiled and then gleefully extended his middle finger in the general direction of democratic transparency. Not literally, of course. But the message was unmistakable. President Trump’s administration blocked journalists from recording audio or video of yesterday’s briefing.
When a reporter asked Stephen K. Bannon why the briefings were now off camera, he quipped: “Sean got fatter.”
Such pathetic, undemocratic cowardice is part of a disturbing trend. Increasingly, politicians are weaponizing public anger at the media to justify operating in the shadows. Democracy is dying in that darkness. We cannot and must not accept it becoming the new normal.
Even if yesterday’s briefing had been on camera, this is just the seventh press briefing in June. That’s a sharp drop not just in comparison with Trump’s early days but also from the frequency of press briefings under Barack Obama (there were 23 briefings in June 2016; Obama averaged more than 19 per month).
Trump himself is also avoiding on-camera press conferences. Obama held 65 solo press conferences, an average of more than eight per year. George H.W. Bush averaged 22 per year. After five months, Trump has held just one — and none since February. This is a deliberate and undemocratic attempt to shield the president from direct public scrutiny.
And the White House is merely part of an ominous trend. In today’s Georgia special election, both candidates reportedly barred reporters from unfriendly press outlets from attending their final campaign events last night. Last week, Republican leadership in the Senate attempted to outlaw the long-standing practice of journalists interviewing members of Congress in hallways (unless they had specific permission from the Senate Rules Committee). In Montana, Greg Gianforte’s decision to body-slam a journalist earned him a ticket not to jail but a chance to serve out his probation in the hallowed halls of Congress, welcomed by Republicans with open arms.
The White House has also ended the practice of releasing visitor logs, so we don’t know who is meeting with the president or his senior staff. Maybe Trump is meeting with people who have leverage over him with major business debts? We’d never know even if the visitor logs were released, because we’ve been kept in the dark on Trump’s tax data — the first time that has happened since President Richard Nixon.
In the Senate health-care saga, reporters can’t even be barred from hearings because there are none. Instead, 13 white Republican men from 10 states, representing fewer than 1 in 4 Americans, are bypassing normal public hearings as they secretly craft a health-care bill that will affect every American and one-sixth of the U.S. economy.
These are all commonly used tactics in the shadows of authoritarian societies: If people don’t know what’s happening, it’s a lot harder to criticize it. After all, we all know that Vladimir Putin is corrupt, but we can’t prove it because the Russian government deliberately shrouds itself in darkness. We cannot allow such authoritarian practices to become part of our open, transparent and free society. Democracy rests on a simple foundation — the informed consent of the governed. That principle is now under attack.
Pictures, video and audio are powerful. Think back to Sean Spicer’s tall tales about the inauguration crowd size: Without side-by-side images, we may have never known that he was lying. On bigger issues, such as Trump telling Lester Holt that he fired James B. Comey because of “the Russia thing,” it would be a lot harder to prove he said that if there were no recordings, so that it was just Lester Holt’s word vs. Trump’s. There is no justification for off-camera briefings aside from the fact that it makes it easier for the White House to deceive the public and avoid public accountability.
If off-camera press briefings become the new normal, what’s next? A lack of public outcry will validate the White House calculation that nobody will really care if they just stop holding press briefings altogether (something Trump previously suggested).
That’s unacceptable. In democracies, elected officials are employees of the citizenry. They are accountable to us. We cannot accept government in the shadows as the new normal of American politics. Transparency in government is worth fighting for; it separates us from the despots who close their palace’s gilded curtains while the press tries, in vain, to peer within.
Trump hasn’t gone that far yet, but he’s starting to draw the curtains. If we don’t speak out now, this could be just the beginning. In the meantime, we need innovative journalists who can shame the White House for its undemocratic practices while exploring fresh methods of shining light into Trump’s shadowy swamp.