Why Doesn't Hillary Clinton Have More Press Conferences?

Aug 5, 2016
Originally published on August 5, 2016 10:10 am

Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump taunted Hillary Clinton over the length of time it had been since she had formally faced a pack of reporters with microphones, cameras, iPhones and notepads at the ready.

"So, it's been 235 days since crooked Hillary Clinton has had a press conference," Trump told reporters and supporters who gathered in Miami on July 27. "You, as reporters who give her all of these glowing reports, should ask yourselves why."

Why that's the case requires a layered answer, involving events as fresh as Trump's own missteps in recent days and as dated as Clinton's memories of the first years of her husband's administration.

For the moment, Trump is busy sabotaging himself in full public view: attacking the grieving parents of a Muslim U.S. Army officer killed while protecting comrades in Iraq; making easily disprovable claims that even his campaign cannot sustain; attacking fellow Republican leaders such as Sen. John McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Democratic strategist Lis Smith says the Clinton campaign is taking a calculated risk in failing to hold a press conference with reporters since last December.

Journalists care about such things, Smith says. Clinton aides know that voters typically don't, she says: "As they're watching Donald Trump implode daily, with his impolitic statements and gaffes, they're sitting back and laughing."

Smith, who has never worked for either Bill or Hillary Clinton, led Barack Obama's rapid response team on the 2012 campaign and was deputy campaign manager for Martin O'Malley until he dropped out of the primaries. She says the Clinton campaign is more likely to react if local media outlets and figures in key swing states criticize her for a lack of press conferences.

Otherwise, she says, never interfere when your foe is busily doing your dirty work for you in discrediting himself.

As former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod tweeted: "If I were @HillaryClinton, I might embark on summer tour of America's splendid national parks & cede the stage entirely to @realDonaldTrump."

Yet Clinton's recalcitrance toward press conferences has endured for months.

In late May, CNN's Jake Tapper sought to pin Clinton down during a televised interview by phone, asking her when she'd remedy that.

"Oh, I'm sure we will," Clinton said in the May 31 interview. (So far, she hasn't.)

Clinton then suggested there are other, better ways to glean insights from a candidate.

"I was shocked myself that I've done nearly 300 interviews and they're not even sure they've captured all the that ones I've done," Clinton said. "I believe that we do and we should answer questions. Of course I'm going to, in many, many different kinds of settings."

Modern presidents have often sought to circumvent the filter of the traditional media. President George W. Bush relied on interviews with local television stations, while President Obama mixes up interviews with conventional outlets such as CBS News and The Atlantic with newer outlets such as Vox, BuzzFeed, Reddit, and Zach Galifianakis' Between the Ferns. Neither view press conferences with great favor.

And Clinton has a point: Interviews can prove illuminating. Clinton's aides and surrogates have invoked the large and climbing number of interviews many times. As modern campaigns almost invariably keep a running tally of such interactions, I asked Clinton's press office late Wednesday night for an itemization of those 300 interviews. On Thursday, midday, I was promised a detailed reply. None arrived by midnight.

Even when Clinton does interviews, however, she can encounter choppy waters. Last weekend, after the conclusion of the Democratic convention, she gave an interview to Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace. Her characterization of what FBI Director James Comey said about her email servers was widely panned.

There's a historic context, too.

According to political professionals who have followed her closely, Clinton has never enjoyed the give-and-take with scrums of reporters. Part of it stems from her personality. She is said to shine in smaller settings. And part arises from her history.

A generation ago, as first lady of Arkansas and of the United States, Hillary Clinton felt badly treated by the press during coverage of scandals (that she insisted were not scandals) and setbacks (that could have cost Clinton an independent career of her own).

In 1994 she held her own press conference to try to lance the boil, acknowledging a steady drumbeat of questions over a series of transactions encompassed in the Whitewater flap and the collapse of the health care overhaul she championed.

Clinton told reporters assembled in the White House State Dining Room that she had always tried to answer the questions to reporters on the campaign trail in informal settings or in one-on-one interviews with local media outlets.

"I really was under the misimpression that if I answered them in Rochester or answered them in St. Louis, or somewhere else, that should be enough," Clinton told reporters. "And I just didn't understand enough about being accessible to all of you or being accessible in Washington. And so I came to that realization. And that's why I'm here."

Yet history echoed itself in March 2015, when Clinton held an awkwardly orchestrated press conference at the United Nations. It was intended to allow her to be seen confronting deepening concerns about Clinton's use of a private email server for sensitive State Department matters. It turned into something of a debacle.

Smith, the Democratic consultant, says too many candidates are too worried about making the wrong kind of news. The Senate was a kind of rolling press conference for Clinton; the remove of the State Department and Clinton Foundation left her rusty, Smith says.

"The longer you go without doing a press conference, the longer you you give reporters the ability to come up with killer questions and the longer you give reporters the ability to build up a simmering rage," Smith says.

Reporters on the trail say Clinton's warmed up, a bit, taking questions in gaggles — brief on-the-record exchanges with reporters traveling with her on the campaign. Such moments provide hope of more direct interactions — but so far, it's just that.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Think about a press conference. It can be really a moment of accountability when the public witnesses powerful politicians confronting sometimes inconvenient questions. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton, such moments have been very few and far between.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Back in May, CNN's Jake Tapper took on the issue when Clinton called into his show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER")

JAKE TAPPER: It has been pointed out to me that it's been something like five or six months since you've held an actual press conference. Is that something you're going to remedy soon?

HILLARY CLINTON: Oh, I'm sure we will.

FOLKENFLIK: More than two months later, they still haven't. Clinton suggested there are other, better ways to hear from a candidate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER")

CLINTON: Look, I was shocked myself that I've done nearly 300 interviews. And they're not even sure they captured all the ones that I've done. But I believe that we do and we should answer questions. Of course I'm going to in many, many different kinds of settings.

FOLKENFLIK: Clinton may have a point. Yet when I asked her press office for an itemization of those 300 interviews and was promised a detailed reply, none arrived. Trump may attack the media daily, but he's almost always in it. And he puts on a fair number of full-on press conferences.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DONALD TRUMP: Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: Late last month in Miami, Trump taunted Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: So it's been 235 days since crooked Hillary Clinton has had a press conference.

FOLKENFLIK: Why that's the case may have something to do with this debacle back in March of last year, intending to address concerns about Clinton's use of a private email server for State Department matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CLINTON: I thought using one device would be simpler, and obviously it hasn't worked out that way. Now I'm happy to take a few questions.

FOLKENFLIK: It did not end well.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CLINTON: Right - I...

DAVID SHUSTER: What about Ambassador Scott Gration being forced to resign?

CLINTON: David, I think you should go online and read the entire IG report. That is not an accurate representation of what happened.

FOLKENFLIK: Democratic consultant Lis Smith worked for Barack Obama in 2012 and Martin O'Malley this year. She says many candidates are too worried about making the wrong kind of news.

LIS SMITH: The longer you go without doing a press conference, the longer you give reporters the opportunity to come up with absolutely killer questions and the longer you give for reporters, you know, the ability to build up this simmering rage that you haven't held these press conferences.

FOLKENFLIK: Those who know Clinton point back to her time as Bill Clinton's first lady and political partner. Hillary Clinton felt badly treated by the press during various scandals and various setbacks. In this 1994 press conference, Clinton directly addressed her relationship with the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: So I really was under the misimpression that if I answered them in Rochester or I answered them in St. Louis or somewhere else, that should be enough. And I just didn't understand enough about being accessible to all of you or being accessible in Washington.

FOLKENFLIK: Twenty-two years later, the discomfort lingers. In the meantime, Trump has been sabotaging himself - attacking a dead Army officer's parents, making easily disprovable claims, castigating other prominent Republicans. Lis Smith says reporters care about press conferences; most voters don't.

SMITH: That's a calculated risk they're willing to take. And as we're watching Donald Trump implode daily with his, you know, impolitics statements and gaffes, they're sitting back and laughing.

FOLKENFLIK: It's a golden rule of politics, Smith says. Don't get in the way when your opponent is busy doing your dirty work for you. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.