THE GLOVES ARE OFF.
Last week White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer walked into the West Wing briefing and smacked the press corps around with a handful of outright lies, berated them, then walked out of the room without taking questions. This past Wednesday, Steve Bannon proclaimed that the media is “the opposition party” of the current administration and should “keep its mouth shut.”
If that’s how the Trump administration wants to play it, then the journalists working the press corps beat need to get much tougher. Currently there are too many pushovers occupying those seats. Trump’s brand of false bravado already put them off in the lead-up to the election. Now Spicer has adopted his same combative techniques.
This is war, and like any war requires careful planning and an understanding of your enemy. The following are suggestions for how the news media should conduct itself at the next Trump news conference, assuming there is one. The same strategy can be employed at White House press briefings–again, if there are any–with a few tweaks.
1. Winnow the ranks of the journalists in the room, which means many of the news outlets would have to give up their seats. Though this would be unpopular, it’s the only way. Collusion among the news media might seem distasteful and unethical to some, but these are extraordinary times. No more than thirty reporters in the pool. Trump thrives in a large room but becomes noticeably uncomfortable in smaller settings. Just listen to his conversations with The New York Times reporters and editors. In those recordings he bends over backwards to gain their approval and exhibits much less of the bravado of his rallies.
2. Replace the weak with the brash: Only send in reporters who won’t back down in the face of gutless bullying. I can name a dozen journalists off the top of my head who could do it, those capable of asking straightforward questions and not giving an inch until they’ve gotten an answer.
3. Fill the front row of the next news conference with young, blond women who bear a resemblance to his daughter Ivanka. Editors need to instruct these women to play to his misogyny. Coach them in coming off ditzy and obsequious—think Victoria Jackson from ’80s Saturday Night Live—then when Trump’s basking in their flattery and fluttering eyelashes, wham! Hit him with a pointed question that catches him off guard. Stunned, Trump will scramble for answers and fall back on his greatest hits of insults. Yes, these women will get berated on national television, but that’s the cost of war. The same way the first troops out of the transport fall and become the sandbags, behind which the next wave can conduct their offensive. It’s brutal, but that’s the way it goes.
4. That’s when the grizzled fearless vets come in, demanding answers and refusing to back down. When Trump refuses to answer one reporter’s question, the next either cedes their time to the shot-down colleague or picks up the same thread. No exceptions. Solidarity in the second wave of the assault is crucial. If Trump berates one reporter, the rest must come to their defense. The goal of this strategy isn’t to get a straight answer out of Trump. That will never happen. Rather, it is to force Trump to retreat, walking away from the microphone in mid-sentence amid a hail of questions he can’t answer without incriminating himself on charges of treason.
It should be the goal of every reputable news outlet that sends a reporter to the White House to get banned from the briefings within the first month. In response, the administration will likely take a page from the Bush 43 playbook and stack the room with sycophantic ringers to pitch Spicer softball questions. But who cares? The goal is to show the administration and Americans that the briefing is really irrelevant.
Because in the end it’s all about optics, not substance. Trump and his hand puppet Spicer must be made to look weak in front of his followers, some of whom are already questioning their decision to vote for him. Right now he is at his least popular since winning the presidency. Chip away at his image enough and eventually enough Trump supporters will turn on him.
Meanwhile the real reporting continues away from the White House. Trump has made so many enemies in the intelligence communities and various departments that the next few years (hopefully, only months) promise to be a golden era of scoops and deep-background revelations that will eventually topple him.