Allies of President Donald Trump worry the latest battle between the administration and the press could have adverse affects on Trump's ability to get his message out, especially as Senate Republicans struggle to pass a health care bill and the administration searches for a much-needed political win.
Since Trump returned from his first foreign trip at the end of May, access to the administration in the form of daily press briefings has slowly but surely been curtailed. There are now more off-camera briefings, and, in several instances, audio recording has been restricted. On-camera briefings, watched by millions of television viewers, have been cut back significantly — infuriating members of the White House press corps who argue that the administration is trying to shirk its responsibility to answer tough questions in public.
This ramped-up tension, blessed by Trump and embraced by embattled press secretary Sean Spicer, has reached a tipping point at the same time as heated deliberation over a Republican Senate health care bill that seeks to replace Obamacare is taking place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The process by which the bill was crafted has been criticized for its secrecy and lack of open hearings by members on both sides of the aisle. But now Trump allies say the administration is making a mistake by not maximizing the dissemination of its message to Americans during this crucial time.
"I don’t think this is a good idea at all," said one source who consults with the administration on communications issues. During the campaign and the early part of his presidency, the source said, Trump controlled the conversation and set the agenda. "Even when the media was attacking him — it was on points he’s making."
The source added that it is their understanding that the lack of on-camera briefings is a stopgap measure, while the administration finds a replacement for Spicer at the podium.
"'We don’t have a great camera person so let’s not go on camera as much' is only OK in the short term," the source continued.
A second source close to the administration confirmed the plan and said White House staffers are on board — for now.
"Everyone understands why there are more off-camera briefings and it's seen as a short term solution, a transitional thing," the source said. "If it doesn’t change then people will be surprised."
The added hostility between the press and the administration was on display on Monday, when briefings are usually on-camera at the start of the week.
CNN's Jim Acosta tried to ask a question when Spicer responded dismissively, "There’s no camera on, Jim."
"Maybe we should turn the cameras on, Sean. Why don’t we turn the cameras on?" Acosta replied.
Later, a reporter asked about the "drastic shift" in the way briefings are handled as reporters piled on Spicer. Acosta tried to interrupt again, with Spicer attempting to move on. April Ryan, a reporter for Urban Radio Networks, said the question was a legitimate one.
"You are a taxpayer-funded spokesman for the United States government," Acosta said. "Can you at least give us an explanation as to why the cameras are off?"
Spicer, calling on Trey Yingst of One America News Network, was instead forced to finally answer. "Can we get this out of the way? Can we address the cameras issue?" Yingst said.
"Yeah. Some days we'll have them, some days we won't," Spicer said. "The President is going to speak today in the Rose Garden. I want the President's voice to carry the day. Look, this is nothing inconsistent with what we've said since day one."
Jeffrey Lord, a CNN commentator and Trump supporter, said this is a typical issue that consumes the beltway media, while Trump's voters are instead "concerned about health care or their job or coal mining or what have you — whether there is video of a White House spokesman doesn’t mean anything. "
But the source who consults with the White House on communications issues said Spicer, who often appears to be speaking to Trump during briefings that air on TV, is missing an opportunity to direct his message to voters.
"I prefer the spokesman ignore the room," the source said. "But talk to the people, not the press. Talk to the camera and that voter in Michigan, talk to them directly."
A former Republican National Committee staffer said the mistake the White House communications shop is making is cutting access to briefings, and not molding them into the form they want them to take, pointing to Skype questions that the administration has solicited from friendly conservative radio hosts and local affiliates in smaller cities.
"By getting rid of press briefings they're undoing their own initiative," the source said. "It does more harm than good."
The source who consults the administration agreed.
"Trump is a reality star, so we can’t be a serious, behind the scenes presidency," the source said. "We need the glitz and the Hollywood — he’s a showman. I don’t know what they’re thinking."