Why Ari Fleischer is against resurrecting the extinct White House press briefings

Salon talks to the Bush-era press secretary about the duties of that role and the current 300-day briefing blackout

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 12, 2020 11:00AM (EST)

Press secretary Ari Fleischer, "American Experience: George W. Bush" panel for PBS at TCA press tour (PBS)
Press secretary Ari Fleischer, "American Experience: George W. Bush" panel for PBS at TCA press tour (PBS)

In so-called normal times and under business-as-usual administrations the job of White House Press Secretary doesn't lead to renown or infamy. Those terms — normal, business as usual — don't apply to Donald Trump's tenure in the Oval Office, and his press secretaries have become household names mostly for the wrong reasons.

Sean Spicer's claim to fame is being a terrible liar and an even worse dancer. Sarah Huckabee Sanders distinguished herself by reducing the once-frequent White House press corps briefings to very occasional insult exchanges peppered by lies.  Her successor Stephanie Grisham, meanwhile, spends her time appearing on the One America News Network, Sinclair Broadcast Group stations, and Fox News instead of serving as a liaison between the press corps and the Oval Office.

More than 300 days have passed since the White House has held a news conference with reporters. In light of the recent saber-rattling between the U.S. military and Iran, that number is stunning. Times such as these require an official briefings from the White House and the military, who are charged with a duty to convey information to citizens via the press corps with clarity.

Such times also present tremendous opportunities to spin the administration's actions in a persuasive light, leading citizens to have confidence in its actions. Indeed, Ari Fleischer used his position as George W. Bush's press secretary to sell a war that has been dragging on now for 17 years.

On Friday, Fleischer appeared in Pasadena to talk about the upcoming "American Experience" profile "George W. Bush," part of PBS' day of press conferences at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. This is where Salon sat down with him for an interview that took place before the "American Experience" panel.

Right around the same time, 13 former White House press secretaries, military and foreign service officials published a letter on CNN calling for the restoration of regular press briefings.

"An informed press corps strengthens our ability to govern," the letter states. "Yes, presidents are now able to communicate directly via the internet, social media and tweets. But most Americans will learn about the work of the White House in the reports they see, read, and hear in what we collectively call 'the press.'"

The statement then observes that regular White House briefings generally lead to better and more responsible reporting, later adding, "In times of military conflict and international crisis, these briefings take on even more importance. Americans want to know the latest developments and seek the truth. On social media, wild rumors can fly, and our adversaries can manipulate disinformation to their advantage. This is now well documented."

"For that reason, among many, the country needs trusted sources of information delivered on a timely and regular schedule. That is the fundamental responsibility of people who serve as spokesmen and women for presidents, cabinet secretaries and other high-ranking government officials."

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley responded to the letter by calling its writers "D.C. establishment swamp creatures."

Among those who signed are Victoria Clarke, who worked under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Scott McClellan, who worked under Bush as his press secretary.

Missing from that list are McClellan's fellow Bush-era press secretaries Dana Perino and Fleischer. Perino is now a Fox News anchor, and Fleischer is a contributor at Fox News.

In this one-on-one conversation with Salon, Fleischer talked about his view of the press' relationship with the White House in the current climate and was asked to reflect on his time as press secretary to the second President Bush, specifically with regard to conveying false information about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction that led us to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Please note that this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

 I don't know if you read the recent Twitter challenge from authors Don Winslow and Stephen King to Stephanie Grisham.

No, I haven't.

 They stated that if she would hold a press briefing, they'll give $200,000 to St. Jude's Charity. This was a serious offer, speaking to the fact that there has not been a White House press briefing for more than 300 days.


You held that job and observed the traditional means of operating as an information bridge between the White House and the press corps. So what do you think about the fact that the last couple of press secretaries have been not only less approachable, but granting less access to official information coming out of the White House?

I'm a traditionalist, so it concerns me a lot and there's a tremendous value to the briefing. There certainly was during the Bush era, and historically now, the advantage to a president is you have people reinforce his message and buttress what he says. The advantage to the country is it gives reporters a chance to ask more probing, longer follow-up questions.

But everything's changed now in this era of hostility between President Trump and the press. And I've never seen such rancor and hostility in both directions. And so as much as I'm a traditionalist and see the benefits of the briefing, I don't know that if they brought the briefing back in this current environment, it would serve the press, the public or the press secretary any good cause. I just think it would turn the room into nothing but a TV show that was full of nasty arguments both directions.

I'm not going to disagree with the partisan rancor in this country That is abundantly clear. But I do not believe that what you're saying about the animosity in terms of the press, particularly the actual people in that briefing room, is justified.

 I say that because there is a habit nowadays, as we're consuming media, of conflating the people who are on the ground and in that room doing their job as journalists and asking questions, with punditry. You know this. You're a pundit.  So I understand that you're going to have a viewpoint on this topic that's going to be a bit skewed. But I just want to say that when you're blaming both sides, I need to disagree with that.

 The questions that are being asked are probing and they're certainly pressing tough issues with the president. But I would also say that the reaction the president has had, and the press secretaries from Sean Spicer to Sarah Huckabee Sanders and now what we seen of Stephanie Grisham, that is where the rancor has showed up. And you can call me biased on the behalf of those journalists, but when I'm watching the news, the rancor is really elevated from the [White House] side.

 Just one other factor I'll mention – and I'll come back to that.  But there's another big factor here that's changed things. And that's the accessibility of the president himself versus President Obama, President Bush, President Clinton. No predecessor has been as open and accessible to the press as the president himself. And that is the primary job of the White House press corps, is to ask the president hard questions. So he's doing it on virtually a daily basis, whether it's a good day for him or a bad day --

As he's getting on a helicopter with very loud rotors where he limits amount of time spent answering questions.

—that matters. I mean, if you're, if you're sitting there, they're getting seven, eight, nine, 10 questions —

They're getting in a couple of questions repeated seven, eight, nine, 10 times…And he's not really answering those questions.

 I don't think that's the case.

 I'm just saying that there's a difference between those formal briefings, which as you know, you have a controlled environment that you, as the press secretary, used to your advantage. Just in terms of being able to distill information accurately and effectively to the press.  What you did, and I'm not saying this was right, but you distilled the message to the press, and the press gave it credibility and repeated it. I'll also say the press should have questioned you even more. I would say that to every press secretary.

 But the role that the press secretary plays carries a certain level of respect with the press. By saying Trump is more accessible, that doesn't necessarily mean that the press is getting a better value in the information he's sharing.

That's on the press, not on the president. They have daily access and the press can get out of it whatever they seek. And I don't think venue matters. They have access to the president, which is an improvement over prior White Houses for the press. So given the fact that the president is so accessible, I still wish as a traditionalist there were the briefing, but I'm realist enough to know that that rancor, that hostility would turn into a nasty red hot TV show where the few grandstanders in the room will spoil it for the lot of them, particularly print reporters who really do just want to get questions answered.

[CNN White House correspondent] Jim Acosta, for example. He acts like a pundit when he should be a correspondent. He states his opinion. He tells the White House what they should be concluding, and I think it's that type of grandstanding along with the breakdown of the media in the modern era that has led to such polarizing media outlets. We used to have a much more dedicated, neutral fact-finding press corps and now, in both directions, the press takes stands for and against. And I think that's a reality that's going to live long after President Trump as well. There's just been a breakdown on what the media represents that's changed with this polarization. All of it in the Trump era leads me to think that as traditional as I am, and as constructive as the briefing can be, it makes little to no sense to fiddle with the Trump administration.

At the same time you have to also consider who is that in that room. You're talking about the breakdown in the media. But there are people in that room who aren't actually, and I am saying this politely, traditional media. They're not even really media at all. The White House has invited propaganda machines into that room.

They've always been there.

So you're saying this is normal, that you let in the likes of One America News, conspiracy bloggers ,and newsletter writers, you let those in during the Bush era?

 Oh yeah. I mean, my approach during the Bush era was the press secretary should not be the person who decides who was or who was not media. There were people who worked for me who made that decision based on logistics and Secret Service reviews. I don't think it's helpful for the press secretary to decide you are acceptable as a journalist. That's a thin line on thin ice. So I had people in there who were far, far left pundits and then far, far right pundits. That's the way it goes.  I'd spend most of my time taking questions from the front couple of rows, which is where the traditional mainstream outlets sit.

The difference now is that when Trump has appeared and asked questions, he's gone to the "friendlier" outlets that aren't actual news organizations. And that's something as press secretary when you would brief Bush, my guess is, and you can clarify this, but I suspect you encouraged him to take questions from the traditional news outlets that carried the most weight.

He did, regularly. What really changed is the internet and social media has created profound changes in the way the media operates. And then breakdown of the media in terms of the polarization that the rest of the nation is going through as well.

When I was there, there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter, it was the dawn of the social media internet era. Toward the end of the Bush years, Twitter existed and Facebook existed, but I remember thinking if we ever wanted to produce a White House video, we would have released it through government channels and I'd have been hammered for creating government propaganda.

Technology changed, and the Obama administration regularly released YouTube videos and it was widely accepted. It was measured then by how many clicks it got as a measure of whether it was popular, whether it was successful. Gone was the notion that this could be propaganda even though the only difference was who carried it: YouTube versus the government channel.

Technology has really changed everything for the media probably in many ways that are positive in many ways that are negative and we're still flushing that out.

Let's talk about that. A lot of your tweets and recent interviews have been quoted. You are getting on Fox News and saying a lot of things in the moment, that you're having thrown back in your face and you're being asked to defend yourself.

 I'm talking about everything that's happening in Iran, the missile strikes in Iraq, and all the reaction around this new conflict in the Middle East. People have taken issue with your recent initial reaction of  "we'll be greeted as liberators," which is what you said in 2003.  After that, there were marches in the streets of Iran showing that not to be the case.

 Looking at this part of a 17-year war – one which you had role in starting – it's curious to me that now, 17 years later that you wouldn't look back and observe that maybe we shouldn't be doing this, maybe we shouldn't be increasing tensions with Iran.

Yeah, I'd do it the same way I always have. And that's to say what I believe. It's not complicated.

Not even in hindsight?

First off, you have to make the distinction between the military operation, the war itself, and then the occupation. The aftermath fact is from March of 2003 till roughly July, August of 2003, we were greeted as liberators. You could go to cafes and downtown Baghdad, sit outside and have meals. It was a peaceful city. People welcomed the Americans. Starting in the fall of 2003 predominantly, that's when the occupation turned terrible. And that's when we start to lose many more lives. And that's when the tide turned.

So two things can be right at the same time. We were greeted as liberators, and then a guerrilla war became a highly successful guerrilla operation. And we didn't handle the occupation, right? We handled the military invasion. We didn't handle the occupation.

But I'm talking about the information that was dispensed to the press before the war.

I'll get back to that. The other big thing was the issue of weapons of mass destruction. This is an entirely legitimate issue. Of course, I faithfully and accurately reported to the American people precisely what the CIA concluded. The CIA concluded the Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, biological or chemical, no if, ands, or buts.

And the UN investigators went in and didn't find any conclusive evidence of WMDs.

 The CIA said that he had them. That was the CIA's conclusion. And that was what the president relied on when he made the decision to go to war.

Now, tragically, that intelligence turned out to be wrong, and we all acknowledge that that's what led to the creation of the war. They called the Robb-Silberman Commission, a bipartisan investigation into how and why it went wrong. Their conclusion was it was an intelligence failure. That's the heart of it.

And to this day, I'm certain that if the CIA had said to President Bush, "We don't know. We're not sure if he has weapons of mass destruction or not," there never would have been [a war].

And the tragedy is the information turned out to be wrong and we went to war based on a wrong conclusion by the CIA.

[Editor's Note: Fleischer elaborated on this in a Twitter thread back in March 2019. The Washington Post Fact Checker column followed up with a closer examination of its veracity.]

Famously, you said that you didn't support Trump in the election. But you do now. At what point do you look at the events that are either connected to Trump or that he's precipitated in terms of tensions not just between party but also between the people of this country and say to yourself, "Enough is enough"?  Or, "You know what? Looking back, I might not have been correct in this initial assessment"? At what point do you maybe reassess and actually say in public, "Maybe I wasn't correct?"  Do you apologize for anything?

In the primary, I voted for somebody else. I wanted to be for him in the general against Hillary Clinton. And as I watched it all unfold, I ultimately left my ballot blank at the presidential level and voted for him all the levels below president. And as I have watched President Trump, there are many times I have criticized him and there are many times that I have praised him. I'm not afraid to be independent and call it as I see it.

I regularly defended [Special Counsel Robert Mueller] because I know Bob Mueller. I know what a man of integrity is. I was one of few, if not the only person, on Fox News from start to finish to defend Bob and Bob Mueller's honor and integrity and how he conducted that investigation. And I've never hesitated to criticize the president on Twitter or on Fox News.

. . . So I don't hide what I think or say. And I think one of the highest duties you have having once worked at the White House is no longer to be a spokesperson for any one president or cause. That's what I used to do with tremendous pride. Now the more important thing is to try to shine a light on what's right, what's wrong, what worked, what didn't, and explain it.

And that's what I've tried to do with President Trump. There are things that he's done that . . . I don't support his manner. His style is not mine. It's not like that any of the people that I've worked for. It's too truculent. It's too offensive.

But I'll also point out that many of the criticisms against him are too truculent and too offensive. He's been called Adolf Hitler, he's been called Mussolini. As soon as he was the president-elect, a movement [arose] that was based on the word "resistance," which was the word used against the Nazis in France. . . . Talk about going beyond the norms. These are all actions beyond the norms.

But do you believe that he has been a normal president? You've worked for a man who I think people would say operated within the social contract of what we expect from a president.

He's the president that the American people through the electoral college elected. And I see a lot of people who rejected that, who tried to overturn it in the electoral college, if they could have, who are now trying to overturn it through impeachment if they can. And I think that is equally, if not more so, violative of the norms that I believe are important to the traditions that George Bush represented and the people that I used to work for represented. So I think there's way too much hostility in the system. But it's on every side. It's not just President Trump.

Just to clarify, what would you say those norms are?

To treat people you disagree with, with respect. When President Obama was reelected in 2012 I tweeted the next morning, congratulations to President Obama. He's my president and he's all our president. I think that's the way we should all be. That's how you show respect for the American people and the decisions made within our constitutional system. I didn't vote for President Obama. I voted for Mitt Romney, but I recognized he's my president. As soon as President Trump was elected, you had this massive movement on Twitter and social media saying, "not my president."

That same thing happened with Obama.

But not by me. You're asking me questions of me. That's why I said to you, I instantly tweeted, he's my president. I wanted to strike that civil tone that much more representative of the Bush family's tone. So if you're asking about my behavior, I can just tell you what I've done. And that's represented by what I believe about President Bush. and how you treat people, and how you should be civil with people even if you disagree with them.

You're a contributor to Fox News and a lot of people have pointed out that Fox is one of the less respectful, less civil, less considerate proponents of discourse right now, particularly in politics. So when you're talking about respect and civility — obviously they employ you, so there's only so much you can say — but what do you see that they're contributing to this conversation?

Well, I think you have to make a distinction between opinion shows and news shows.

Viewers don't make that distinction.

But I think there is a distinction between the opinion shows and the news shows, and the news shows are superb. I think Bret Baier's show at six o'clock is one of the best, most fair shows in journalism, and their daytime shows as well. I wake up in the morning, I watch CNN in the morning, and I watch Fox in the afternoon because I like the balance. I want to hear what all parties are saying and I think you can make many of the same points you made about Fox, about CNN and certainly about MSNBC.

So that's part of that polarization, the breakdown in the media that I was talking about. But I also suggest if you see the things that I say on Fox, it is very much an independent voice and a voice that reminds people about the importance of civility.

This is the point I was making to you about Bob Mueller and I could give you dozens of examples where I've said things that were critical of the president and said things that are supportive of the president. I don't have to be polarizing.

The "American Experience" two-part biographical profile "George W. Bush" with Fleischer airs Monday, May 4, and Tuesday, May 5 at 9 p.m., on PBS member stations.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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