For a year, many media outlets — including Poynter — complained about the lack of official White House press conferences.
Sarah Sanders didn’t hold one for the final three months of her tenure. Stephanie Grisham didn’t hold one at all in her nine months as press secretary. So when Kayleigh McEnany, who took over in early April, began having press conferences again, it was a welcome change.
But in the category of “careful what you wish for,” McEnany is off to a rough start.
In her very first official White House press conference, McEnany told reporters, “I will never lie to you. You have my word on that.” And then, in that very press conference, she lied.
Now she just looks overmatched. The job and this moment seem too big for her. While she’s doing her best to protect and support the president, McEnany far too often comes off looking petty, vindictive, tone-deaf and simply not up to the challenge of adequately doing her job.
Perhaps it’s the newness of the job and her total lack of experience in this area. Maybe she simply isn’t capable of being an effective press secretary. Or maybe she simply can’t defend some of the indefensible things President Donald Trump says, does or tweets. But in barely more than a month, McEnany has already had several high-profile controversies.
In just her second press conference, McEnany was asked about a quote from February when she said, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here, and isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?”
She said her quote was misunderstood (it wasn’t) and then, in her most juvenile moment so far, pulled out a notebook to take shots at several news outlets — including The Washington Post, The New York Times and NPR — before abruptly walking off.
Last week, when questioned about the president and the possible reopening of churches, McEnany went off script and said it was “interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.”
One reporter, Reuters’ Jeff Mason, pushed back, saying he resented the remark and that he was a church-goer. Fox News’ Chris Wallace criticized McEnany for that remark over the weekend, and McEnany was asked about the flap during an appearance on Tuesday’s “Fox & Friends.”
Co-host Brian Kilmeade asked McEnany, “Were you questioning the religious beliefs of the press?”
She said, “No, I never questioned the religious beliefs of the press. Many of our journalists are great men and women of faith.”
She added that she found it peculiar that the media was asking so much about churches and said, “I’ve never been asked why a liquor store was essential.”
But that’s not what McEnany said in the press conference. She specifically claimed — unfairly and wrongly — that members of the media “desperately” wanted to see churches remain closed. She was, indeed, questioning the religious beliefs of the press. It would have been nice if Kilmeade did some real journalism and had followed up with that point, but he and the “Fox & Friends” crew simply moved on to the next topic.
Then came Tuesday’s disastrous press conference when McEnany was asked about President Trump’s tweets implying that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough had something to do with the death of Scarborough’s staffer in 2001.
That staffer’s widower is pleading with Twitter to remove those posts. In a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Timothy Klausutis wrote, “My request is simple: Please delete these tweets.”
He also wrote, “I’m a research engineer and not a lawyer, but I’ve reviewed all of Twitter’s rules and terms of service. The President’s tweet that suggests that Lori was murdered — without evidence (and contrary to the official autopsy) — is a violation of Twitter’s community rules and terms of service. An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet but I am only asking that these tweets be removed.”
Klausutis said he is “now angry as well as frustrated and grieved.” He wrote, “I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.”
He also wrote, “My wife deserves better.”
In a statement, Twitter said, “We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family. We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.”
Naturally, McEnany was asked about this Tuesday. And she could not have handled it more poorly. Her response was stunningly tone-deaf and insensitive. She took no responsibility for the president and turned the blame onto Scarborough. When PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor asked about the widower pleading with Twitter to remove tweets from the president, McEnany again dismissed the question and turned it back to Scarborough.
Alcindor asked, “Why can’t this widower get peace from the president?”
McEnany responded with, “I’ve already asked and answered this question.”
Alcindor said, “You did not ask and answer this question.”
Instead of answering the question, McEnany followed with a trick that her boss often uses: She called on a reporter from Trump-friendly OANN.
Shortly thereafter, McEnany departed, concluding another feeble press conference performance.
Here’s the thing McEnany needs to learn: She’s not going to outsmart the White House press corps. They’ve been doing this for a long time, and are very good at their jobs. If she believes she is going to get into a match of wits and that she can duck and dodge questions, she’s wrong. These reporters aren’t going away, their questions aren’t going away and her responses are recorded and remembered.
McEnany’s arrogance is as evident as her incompetence so far and it’s a bad look not only for her, but the president she serves.
There was a time when the media wanted the White House press secretary to give regular press conferences. That hasn’t changed. But with more press conferences like Tuesday’s, it wouldn’t be surprising if this press secretary goes into hiding just like her predecessors.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.