- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2017

White House press secretary Sean Spicer plans to move out of his role as the president’s daily spokesman, while President Trump is souring on often-hostile televised media briefings and is limiting traditional press access in favor of taking his message to audiences directly.

After only five months on the job, the embattled Mr. Spicer is searching for a replacement to take his place at the podium to conduct press briefings and allow him to shift into a less visible role managing White House communications.

Mr. Spicer, whose combative exchanges with reporters at daily briefings have become legendary, has been easing out of the daily briefing job for a month. He has increasingly shared that duty with White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders.

But asked about his reported move, Mr. Spicer said from the press briefing podium Tuesday, “I’m right here.”

“It’s no secret we’ve had a couple vacancies, including our communications director, who’s [been] gone for a while,” Mr. Spicer said, referring to Michael Dubke, who resigned in late May after only three months on the job. “We’ve been meeting with potential people that may be of service to this administration. I don’t think that should come as any surprise.”

He also said the White House is “always looking for ways to do a better job of articulating the president’s message and his agenda, and we’ll continue to have those discussions internally.”

“And when we have an announcement of a personnel nature, we’ll let you know,” he said.

It was his first televised press briefing in eight days.

However long Mr. Spicer remains in the high-pressure job, Tuesday was his 152nd day as press secretary. Only three White House press secretaries since 1960 have worked shorter stints: Jerald terHorst served 31 days under President Gerald Ford, George Stephanopolous served 138 days as de facto press secretary at the start of the Clinton administration, and Jake Siewert held the post for 112 days in the final months of the Clinton presidency.

Mr. Spicer has been carrying out dual roles as communications director and press secretary before Mr. Dubke was hired in February — and again since he quit. He interviewed candidates to replace him at the podium, including conservative radio host Laura Ingraham and Daily Mail editor David Martosko, Politico reported Monday.

Beyond Mr. Spicer’s changing role, there are other signs that Mr. Trump and his aides are fed up with coverage by the White House press corps that is heavy on questions about Russia and the special counsel investigation into possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Mr. Spicer and Ms. Sanders have scaled back the frequency and duration of televised press briefings.

After Mr. Trump openly suggested last month that it would be a “good idea” to stop press briefings altogether, the White House also has shifted its media strategy in recent weeks to include Cabinet secretaries who limit questions to topics such as reform of the Veterans Affairs Department.

“The White House press briefing on-camera has worn out its welcome with the Trump White House,” said a Republican ally familiar with the thinking in the West Wing. “Trump understands that he’s not getting the value out of it. Because of the crises and the inability of the administration to get their message out through the televised briefings, they decided to change it up in a variety of ways.”

This Republican emphasized that the White House is “not abandoning the on-camera briefings.”

“But they are getting away from the addiction that cable news TV had to feeding its audience with ‘gotcha’ questions,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s not working for the Trump folks. Why put his press secretary out there to take the arrows when it’s unnecessary?”

One White House reporter sympathized with the White House’s move to limit televised briefings, saying “there’s some rationale for it on their part” to want to avoid “stumbling or friction in the briefing room.”

The problem for the media, this reporter said, is that journalists get hit with a “double-whammy” when there are fewer briefings and the president also doesn’t take questions from reporters at a given event.

To get his message out, Mr. Trump is continuing to communicate with his millions of followers on Twitter and holding occasional campaign-style rallies in battleground states. On Wednesday he will travel to Iowa to visit a community college and hold a rally.

Ms. Sanders rejected the suggestion that the White House is restricting press access, saying the White House is making a more concerted effort not to distract from Mr. Trump’s message when he holds public events. On Monday, when Mr. Spicer chose to give a 32-minute briefing off camera, Mr. Trump had a routine schedule that included an Oval Office meeting with the president of Panama and a session with CEOs of technology companies.

“It’s less about limiting [press access] and more about highlighting these events,” she said. “No one is a better advocate of the president’s policies and agenda than the president himself.”

The curtailed press access is rankling the White House press corps, particularly TV journalists who are chafing at the infrequency of televised briefings. Jim Acosta, a veteran White House reporter for CNN, blasted the Trump communications team on air this week, referring to Mr. Spicer as “getting to a point … where he’s just kind of useless.”

“If he can’t come out and answer the questions, and they’re just not going to do this on camera or audio, why are we even having these briefings or these gaggles in the first place?” Mr. Acosta said.

On Twitter Mr. Acosta said, “Make no mistake about what we are all witnessing. This is a WH that is stonewalling the news media.”

The president infamously referred to Mr. Acosta and CNN as “fake news” at a press conference during the transition when Mr. Acosta tried to ask a question about Russia.

In the first weeks of his presidency, Mr. Trump showed an eagerness to engage with the media, sometimes inviting reporters to observe his meetings at the White House for 30 minutes or more, far longer than the usual “photo-ops” held by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

But those lengthy sessions of presidential press access are rare now. And as reporters ask repeated questions about Russia or the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, the number of televised briefings has dwindled.

Asked again Tuesday whether Mr. Trump believes that Russia interfered in the presidential election last year, Mr. Spicer replied, “I have not sat down and talked to him about that specific thing. Obviously, we’ve been dealing with a lot of other issues today.”

Mr. Acosta, whom Mr. Spicer didn’t call on for a question Tuesday, called out, “Didn’t he say it was ‘fake news,’ Sean?”

White House aides say Mr. Trump has granted the press generous access, conducting many individual interviews with various media outlets. Mr. Spicer said the daily press briefing is merely “one aspect of what we do.”

“We’re here really early in the morning and really late at night, available to [answer] all of your questions, whether it’s email or in person,” he told reporters.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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