By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
Stephanie Grisham is not the worst-ever White House press secretary. Here’s why.
Hearing Joe Lockhart talk about his old job as White House press secretary almost seems quaint.
The idealism: “Your main job is to advocate for the press within the government.”
The talk about facts: “You have to make sure that the information going out to the American public and to the world is accurate and complete.”
And the reason for daily briefings: “They tend to force decisions to get made in a sensible way; they reduce impetuousness and procrastination.”
And when things get particularly ugly — as, for example, during the period when his boss, Bill Clinton, was being impeached — the need for briefings is even greater, he said, because the public is justifiably more hungry for information.
Given that the 30th person to hold the job, Stephanie Grisham, has never held a briefing since she got the title in July, is she really a press secretary?
“That’s an easy one,” Lockhart told me. “She doesn’t do any of the important parts of the job, so no.”
President Trump has been impeached by the House of Representatives and has brought the nation to the brink of a war with Iran.
But still, when it comes to publicly answering questions on behalf of the White House, from the official podium and with the world watching, Grisham remains silent.
She aggressively tweets, of course — often disparaging journalists — and frequently makes appearances on the Trump propaganda network, Fox News, or the even more right wing and equally friendly OANN. (She’s made only a few more mainstream appearances.)
She even co-wrote an offensive op-ed piece harshly criticizing two Washington Post reporters for an accurate story that Trump didn’t like.
Grisham is under particular pressure at the moment, with authors Stephen King and Don Winslow offering to give $200,000 to charity if she’ll hold a 60-minute briefing to take questions from reporters.
As King tweeted: “All you have to do is YOUR DAMN JOB.” (Grisham responded in a CNN interview: “Donations should never come with strings attached.”)
She shows no signs of relenting. She’s said that she thinks reporters use the briefings to grandstand and that Trump is accessible to reporters in other ways.
Nor is she likely to be swayed by an opinion piece signed by more than a dozen former White House press secretaries and other high-level government spokespeople, who served administrations led by both parties.
Their names are familiar — mostly because we remember seeing them at regular briefings: Jay Carney, Dee Dee Myers, Scott McClellan, Victoria Clarke, Robert Gibbs, Mike McCurry.
Acknowledging that the world of media has changed dramatically in recent years, the piece makes the case that official briefings are even more important now.
“On social media platforms, wild rumors can fly and our adversaries can manipulate disinformation to their advantage,” said a draft that was due to be published on CNN’s website.
“For that reason, among many, the country needs trusted sources of information … delivered on a timely and repeatable schedule.”
Lockhart reminded me that the daily briefings really were very frequent: In a typical month during his tenure, he said, there would probably be 20 official briefings and perhaps just as many informal gaggles.
Grisham, of course, took her place in a less-than-distinguished line of Trump-era press secretaries or communications directors. Sean Spicer peddled lies about the inauguration crowd on his first day. Sarah Sanders exuded contempt. And Anthony Scaramucci flamed out in days.
But they did hold briefings, though an ever-dwindling number of them.
There’s little in Grisham’s background to suggest she would perform well on the podium under assertive questioning seeking detailed, credible information.
Yes, she had previous campaign experience and served as press secretary to first lady Melania Trump, but she also was let go from two earlier, nonpolitical jobs after claims of plagiarism and cheating on expense reports.
She is, however, a terrific sycophant, quick to say about former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly: “He was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great President.” Or to eagerly agree with Trump that his critics are “human scum.”
Grisham seems unaware — or simply doesn’t care — that she actually works for the American people and is paid with their tax dollars. In an October email exchange with my colleague Paul Farhi, she described her job differently from how her predecessors see it.
“It is literally my job to support and defend the President,” she said.
Granted, her predecessors could be expert spinners, not always able to be fully forthcoming, sometimes obfuscating; but usually with the underlying sense that they were there to do a job on behalf of the public and the media, as well as the administration.
There generally was some sense of higher purpose, of loyalty to something greater than “the boss.”
Pure fealty is not anything close to an adequate job description for the White House press secretary.
Which, along with Grisham’s performance to date, is why she’s can’t be described as the worst ever.
She may hold the title but she’s not doing the job.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.