Donald Trump has not held a press conference in the 22 days since he was elected president. Barack Obama held his first press conference three days after he was elected for the first time. George W. Bush held a presser three days after the Supreme Court halted the Florida recount. Bill Clinton waited nine days. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that he will hold a “major news conference” on December 15, 37 days after his election. But it’s not clear whether this will be a real press conference, where Trump answers questions from reporters, or a presidential rally disguised as a presser, like the “political Rickroll” Trump tricked the media into covering back in September. As the tattoo I am considering getting scrawled across my chest will say: “This isn’t normal.”
The ritual of the presser has always been part promotional tool to deliver rhetoric to the American people, part implicit presidential duty to face regular questions from highly informed representatives of the public. “They are opportunities for the president to coherently articulate policy, set the agenda, bargain publicly with Congress, move public opinion, [and] signal policy to foreign governments,” says Gerhard Peters, a cofounder of the American Presidency Project, an online archive of presidential documents. “They serve to do more than simply broadcast to the general populace.”
But there is no law that says Trump must gather journalists in the East Room of the White House at regular intervals and answer their questions — and where there is no explicit law, as we already know, Trump has the potential to ride roughshod over decades of tradition. The technological tools available to him and the media outlets that cover him will make avoiding press conferences easier than ever — unless journalists fundamentally change the way they cover the Trump presidency.
The modern press conference began under Woodrow Wilson, who met with reporters once or twice a week for chats that were generally off the record, according to the White House Historical Association. “Wilson ‘personalized’ the presidency and considered interacting with journalists to be a presidential responsibility,” Peters says. “The president, to Wilson, was more than an institution, he [was] also a person.”
As technology brought forth more powerful forms of mass media, presidents took advantage of them to reach citizens directly. Franklin D. Roosevelt held plenty of press conferences with newspaper reporters, but he is better remembered for his regular radio addresses to the public about the Great Depression and World War II. Dwight Eisenhower held the first televised news conference in 1955, and John F. Kennedy held the first one that was broadcast live in 1961. “For [Kennedy], the press conference was a way for him to bypass the traditional print media and really get his image and his charisma directly into the living room,” says Dan Mahaffee, vice president and director of policy of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
Barack Obama tried to leverage similar traits early in his presidency through a series of prime-time press conferences that attracted tens of millions of viewers. But something happened: During his last one, in July 2009, he said that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had “acted stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black Harvard professor who an officer thought was breaking into his own home. The comment sunk the president’s approval ratings and his propensity for pressers withered. Instead of holding frequent press conferences, Obama’s White House leveraged the internet to target narrow audiences with specific messages: granting a serious interview and a goofy Obamacare PSA to BuzzFeed; issuing an address advocating for net neutrality via YouTube; and exuding awkwardness rather than gravitas in a Between Two Ferns skit with Zach Galifianakis. Ultimately, he held fewer pressers per year during his first term than any president since Ronald Reagan.
While Obama was redefining the way the president communicates with citizens, his successor was hurling angry tweets from the peanut gallery. Donald Trump amassed a massive online audience by giving a famous face to the pernicious lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Instead of a Twitter egg shouting the conspiracy, it was the star of The Apprentice. Later, during his presidential campaign, Trump was massively outspent by traditional political opponents but generated billions of dollars worth of free publicity as media outlets hung on every word he said, online and off. Now, as president-elect, Trump has yet to directly address the nation in a traditional manner, so all we are left with is the messages he deigns to beam to our smartphones — a YouTube video, a trio of interviews with legacy news outlets, and several ridiculous tweets.
Trump has not talked to the press at large, and yet both the web and the airwaves are overflowing with Trump content. His tweets are endlessly hailed, mocked, analyzed, and most importantly, rebroadcast by media outlets. His interview with The New York Times was treated like a breaking news event — Times journalists live-tweeted it, then those tweets were repackaged by other outlets to attract clicks online or eyeballs on television. His upcoming victory tour through swing states he won might as well have the tagline “Television Event of the Holiday Season.” The gravitational pull of his persona only seems to increase as he gains more viewers, more retweets, more political power.
The drumbeat from reporters demanding Donald Trump hold a press conference has already started, and it will only get louder if Trump’s December “news conference” mirrors his previous attempts to game press attention. In September, Trump said he would deliver a “major statement” on his claims about Obama’s citizenship — instead, he devoted four sentences to the birther controversy and 30 minutes to the splendor of his campaign and his new Washington, D.C., hotel.
But news organizations won’t easily convince citizens that a press conference is a big necessity, especially when Americans are questioning their faith in journalism and dizzying political distractions mount by the day. “The media’s kind of in a lose-lose situation because the public really doesn’t like it when the media makes the story about the media,” Mahaffee says. “Among the public, unless you’re predisposed to oppose the candidate or in the media itself, it doesn’t really resonate as an issue, particularly if there’s other outlets through which the message is getting out.”
Trump has yet to even tap all the outlets at his disposal to circumvent the press. His social media director has said that the president-elect will hold Q&A sessions during his victory tour using Facebook Live and Periscope. It will be be even harder for journalists to cry foul on Trump not having press conferences if he’s fielding questions directly from citizens. “[Questions] will undoubtedly be filtered by someone at the White House,” Peters says of the social media events. “The White House press secretary’s office will have the chance to present questions the president wants, and ignore the questions they don’t want. This format will never replace a true news conference.” (The Trump transition team did not respond to emails seeking clarification on how the Q&A sessions will be run.)
Obama shied away from press conferences after his first two years in office in favor of targeted, carefully negotiated one-on-one interviews in order to control his messaging. Trump may use the same tactic for the opposite reason. Right now he is overloading our timelines with wildly contrasting and at times contradictory messaging that he has complete control over. An unscripted press conference, especially one that is streamed or broadcast live, risks bringing his hypocrisies into sharper focus through pointed questioning and direct rebuttals. Online, the fact-check could never hope to match the reach of Trump’s lie — at a press conference, it could come moments after he opens his mouth. Peters expects Trump to have fewer pressers than any recent president.
Is there anything that could that change this? The best way to get Trump in front of reporters, Mahaffee says, is to withhold the thing he craves most: attention. “What it would take to really move the needle is whether the media decides: ‘Look, in the absence of the formal press conference, we’re not going to give you the coverage you want on the other things,’” he says. There’s some precedent here: A variety of news outlets boycotted the use of official White House photos in 2013 because they felt press photographers were not being granted enough access to President Obama.
Would media giants be willing to take an even larger coordinated stand against Trump, who is the biggest ongoing ratings and traffic bonanza for the industry in recent memory? The gambit would risk alienating audience members and painting the most powerful person in America as a victim. But it would also deeply frustrate a man who has revealed himself to be fixated on how large, legacy media outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, and Time cover him. A boycott of Trump would signal the first time in this years-long political odyssey that the president-elect didn’t ultimately get his way.
Absent such a radical move, though, we’re likely facing a rhetorical détente that benefits Trump. Journalists yell that Trump is ignoring the citizenry by not granting a legitimate presser. Trump doubles down on his claims that the lying media can’t be trusted. And absent other low-hanging fruit, the unscrupulous tweets and campaign-like rallies remain headline news. Because Donald Trump will soon be the the leader of the free world, he should come to the press. But because Donald Trump will soon be the leader of the free world, the press will come to him.