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Jonathan Bernstein

I don’t get a chance to defend Donald Trump’s administration very often, but I can offer at least partial support in one of this week’s controversies: Doing away with daily televised press briefings isn’t some sort of threat to democracy.

Yes, the White House Correspondents’ Association is upset about it. It’s in their interest to keep the show going. But the republic did just fine before these briefings started being regularly televised during Bill Clinton’s presidency. After all, before CNN went on the air in 1980, there was no place to put second- or third-tier live political events, and it took until at least the mid-1980s for cable TV to be widespread enough to make it worthwhile. Neither the press nor the White House was going to invest time and effort in a performance with no audience. It took a few more years, and a new generation of White House communications staff, to realize they could take advantage of all those hours of cable news time to spread their message.

In fact, as the political scientist Dave Hopkins says, ending these briefings is “mostly a self-defeating retreat from engagement with the world outside Trump's loyal base.” For a president who foolishly caters only to his strongest supporters, and reaches them directly through Republican-aligned media, pitching his message to a broader audience might have helped a bit. (Although internal chaos at the White House communications shop has meant that the staff rarely has a coherent message to sell.)

But even if these briefings could’ve provided some marginal benefits to the White House, ending them really isn’t a big deal. Now, I do think it’s important for the president to regularly take questions from the media. To his credit, Trump has been OK on that (unless you count telling the truth when he answers, which is a separate problem). It’s also useful for someone at the White House to answer routine questions from the press on the record. And it’s important to transmit basic information about what the president and the government are doing. I think Trump’s administration has fallen short on that sometimes, and that’s what the White House correspondents should be squawking about. But it has nothing to do with televised daily briefings.

Trump would hardly be the first president to get bashed for ending a tradition that turns out to be not all that old. That’s sort of the nature of the presidency, which is defined more by what the people who hold the job do than by what the Constitution says. And there’s the old saw about not arguing with folks who buy ink by the barrel. A president is naturally going to take a hit if he stops doing something his predecessor did, especially if it crosses the media. But is it bad for democracy? No, not really.

Bernstein writes for Bloomberg Opinion.

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