WASHINGTON – Newly minted White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany gave the first formal White House daily press briefing in more than a year on Friday.
McEnany, a 32-year-old Harvard Law School graduate and former Trump campaign spokeswoman, fielded questions on a range of subjects from oil reserves to vaccines for coronavirus.
Breaking with the combative model of press briefings adopted by her predecessors in the Trump administration, McEnany maintained a calm and friendly tone with reporters. She answered the questions she could, and she did not denigrate individual news outlets or journalists.
She was also quick to distance herself from previous Trump press secretaries, who were widely criticized for lying to reporters. “I’ll never lie to you,” said McEnany, whose first day on the job was April 7. “You have my word on that.”
At one point, McEnany declined to answer a question about Trump’s campaign travel plans, clearly aware that White House officials are prohibited by law from using their official platforms to engage in political campaigning.
Nonetheless, there were several moments in the briefing when McEnany’s most recent experience as a Trump campaign spokeswoman shone through.
The last time a Trump press secretary answered reporters questions live on camera was on March 11, 2019, while Sarah Huckabee Sanders was still in the job. Sanders’ successor, Stephanie Grisham did not hold a single on-camera briefing in her nine months as press secretary.
On Friday, McEnany said the administration planned to do more daily briefings. “I will announce timing of that forthcoming,” she said, “but we do plan to continue these.”
The briefing marked the end of more than a year during which Trump has served as the only de facto spokesperson for his entire administration.
The coronavirus pandemic has only served to highlight the president’s role as the chief communicator for the White House. Since mid-March, Trump has held near daily live, on-camera briefings about the pandemic, often using the time to spar with reporters and defend his administration against perceived criticism.
By contrast, Friday’s briefing with McEnany felt more like a press briefing from the pre-Trump era, before the president had ever labeled the press the “enemy of the people.”
The half hour Q&A contained none of the bitterness that had come to characterize White House briefings towards the end of both Sanders tenure and that of her predecessor, Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary.
McEnany began Friday’s briefing with the sort of announcement that traditionally starts off daily briefings – important enough to sound newsy, but not so newsworthy that the president himself should be the one announcing it. In this case, the announcement was about hospital funding related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Where her training as a Trump campaign spokesperson was most apparent Friday was in McEnany’s effusive praise of the president.
One question concerned the victorious tone that was recently adopted by some administration officials when speaking about the coronavirus pandemic, and whether it was appropriate when the virus continues to kill more than 1,000 Americans a day. McEnany didn’t just defend the congratulatory style of her White House colleagues, she adopted it.
When senior adviser Jared Kushner “talked about his success story, he was talking about the story of this administration, which is a story of mobilization for the American people, the greatest mobilization of American industry since World War II,” she said. “The fact that this president can look the American people in the eye and say, ‘I am producing 100,000 ventilators this year alongside the private sector…I’d consider that a great success on behalf of the American people.”
In another nod to campaign style messaging, McEnany had two large screens set up to play a video clip from a White House event earlier in the week, one that had been covered by many of the same reporters when it happened. The clip was of an employee from a company that received congressional funding profusely thanking Trump for the help.
And despite McEnany’s pledge not to lie, near the end of the briefing she gave a misleading assessment of new developments in the federal case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Flynn was fired in early 2017, after lying to the vice president and the FBI about his contacts with foreign ambassadors. He later pleaded to guilty to lying to the FBI and cooperated at length with the Mueller investigation
. Newly released FBI documents reveal an internal discussion in early 2017 about how to interview Flynn. McEnany on Friday said the documents contained, “a handwritten FBI note that says ‘We need to get Flynn to lie,’ and get him fired.”
But that’s not what the note said. The note was part of a series of questions about what the aim of Flynn’s FBI interview should be.
McEnany called Flynn’s prosecution “a case of injustice.” But she dodged follow-up questions about why the president fired Flynn, and why Flynn pleaded guilty.