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White House officials who have abandoned the briefing room holding court on the driveway

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 3/15/2019 Melissa Quinn
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The White House briefing room has gone dark. Cue the White House driveway.

Located on the north grounds of the White House, the driveway stretches from the usually vacant press briefing room, winds past the doors leading to the West Wing, and terminates at the gates on Pennsylvania Avenue. And on at least a dozen occasions this year, it’s also been the place where senior staff have stopped to answer questions from a White House press corps starved for formal press briefings.

The “gaggles” are informal and can sometimes feel like a game of chance. It’s often unknown when a White House official will head to a TV interview, done just off the driveway, and whether they will stop and take questions on the way back inside. If it's raining, you can probably forget it.

The question-and-answer sessions also frequently occur early in the morning before many reporters drag themselves to work at the White House. Members of the press corps can be tipped off to gaggles when fellow journalists grab their jackets and head for the briefing room doors.

“It’s worked out that they’ve become the new briefing, except that they’re not a substitute for it because you don’t get the same information and you don’t have the same opportunity to follow up,” White House Transition Project Director Martha Joynt Kumar told the Washington Examiner.

Nevertheless, these driveway sessions have become a prime way for reporters to question top White House officials, particularly as formal press briefings in the Trump White House are occurring with less and less frequency.

Monday’s briefing with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and acting budget director Russ Vought, for example, was the first televised briefing held in 42 days, the longest stretch without one in recent history. The only other briefing in 2019 was held Jan. 28.

But Sanders has stopped to take questions from reporters on the driveway at least eight times since the start of the new year, including on the morning of Trump’s State of the Union address.

Sometimes it’s White House counselor Kellyanne Conway or director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp who stop; other times it’s top White House economists Larry Kudlow or Kevin Hassett.

Even President Trump has gotten in on the action. In June 2018, after appearing live on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” from the north grounds of the White House, Trump held court with a crowd for reporters for 20 minutes on the driveway.

With the sharp decline in official press briefings, these informal question-and-answer gatherings have taken on added significance.

Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said the group “obviously welcomes” any opportunity to question senior staff, including on the driveway of the White House.

“But they're not transcribed and preserved on the White House website, they're at the mercy of the weather, and their ad hoc nature — unlike briefings, there's not really a set time — makes it hard for smaller outlets to plan when to be present,” he told the Washington Examiner in an email. “In short, they're not a substitute for a formal q-and-a in the briefing room,” Knox wrote.

“That’s the way the president likes to deal with reporters,” Kumar said. “Informal, short, and take questions you want to answer.”

Mike McCurry, who served as White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton, agreed.

“On the fly interviews in the White House driveway might work for this White House. The president does not like or want press briefings that he is not giving himself,” he told the Washington Examiner in an email. “So, properly done, these encounters might allow the press secretary or other officials to answer questions they are obligated to answer without incurring the suspicion of the boss.

“That is no substitute, of course, for someone standing at the podium and taking questions that reflect the media’s role of protecting the public’s right to know,” he added.

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