The importance of being Josh Earnest

Mr. Earnest, President Obama's spokesman, has a warning for his successor: Those tweets could undermine your message.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest speaks at a Monitor breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel, on Jan. 18, 2017, in Washington.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest has some words of caution for his successor, Sean Spicer: Donald Trump’s habits with a certain social media platform could make your life very difficult.

Yes, we’re talking about Twitter, and President-elect Trump’s proclivity for tweeting early and often – not just to his 20 million followers, but effectively, to the world. It’s one thing to tweet as a candidate, or before Trump takes office, Mr. Earnest told reporters at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday. But it’s quite another, he said, once Trump becomes president.

“One of the things that will be challenging is that it is apparent that the president-elect often sends tweets without consulting his team,” Earnest said, noting he was trying to be diplomatic. “And that has the potential to put Mr. Spicer in a difficult situation, if the tweets of the president-elect are not effectively coordinated with the public comments of his spokesperson.”

Trump is an early riser – and early tweeter – which will make for an early start to the White House press office’s day. But Earnest, who has met with Spicer to show him the ropes of the how the press office works, suggested his successor is ready.

"Mr. Spicer strikes me as an early riser,” he said. “So I suspect that he is awake for a lot of those tweets.”

Earnest also came armed with advice for the White House press corps, which is wary of possible changes – some dramatic – in how it operates. The Trump team has been considering kicking the press out of its West Wing digs, including work space and briefing room, and into a larger space nearby. That would be a dramatic break from more than 100 years of tradition, in which reporters have had ready access to the White House, if not senior officials.

Earnest has stood firm in his belief that the press should continue to operate from the White House, both as an important symbol of an administration’s willingness to hold itself accountable and also for the press’s practical ability to do its job.

On Wednesday morning, Trump said in an interview on Fox & Friends that he’s told his team not to move the press.

“But some people in the press will not be able to get in," Trump added, a reflection of his tense relationship with the media. During the campaign, some reporters and news outlets were banned from his events.  

Still, Earnest told the breakfast group not to be “reflexively opposed to change.” Rather, he said, “consider proposed changes that are being put forward with an eye toward making sure that you’re protecting the core value of what it means to have an effective, informed, aggressive press corps that can be agents of the American people holding people in power accountable.”

One idea being floated by the Trump team is to have fewer briefings on camera. But Earnest declined to be specific. Speaking broadly, he noted an evolving media environment, with new platforms and social media available for an administration to get its message out. In the past eight years, Obama has spoken to bloggers, YouTube stars, late-night TV hosts, on podcasts, and in other new media, sometimes to the chagrin of traditional media outlets.

Reporters should keep an open mind, Earnest advises.

“My point is, there’s a temptation in the press corps to assume that every time the Trump people are putting forward proposed change, there’s skepticism and even suspicion,” he told the Monitor after the breakfast. “In some cases, I think that suspicion is well placed, because of the kind of relationship and the rhetoric the president-elect has used."

Still, he added, “I hope that there will be enough trust that’s built that there can be a constructive conversation about ways to make this process work even better.”

Another big question, as Obama prepares to return to private life, is how vocal he will be about Trump’s actions and policies. When asked, Earnest repeated his – and Obama’s – frequent assertions that the soon-to-be ex-president intends to honor the tradition of former presidents by refraining from public comment on the issues of the day.

But then he suggested Obama might flout that practice.

“I think the president is also reserving the right, if he sees some very basic, central values and norms being violated, to speak out in defense of them,” Earnest said. “But it certainly is the president’s hope, and even his expectation, that he won’t have to do that.”

During his breakfast with the press corps, Earnest was his usual cordial self, on message as ever, and defending his boss to the end, even after an election in which Obama actively campaigned for his heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump.

The Democratic agenda is popular, Earnest said, but “I think the president’s concern is Democrats haven’t made that case effectively.”

Earnest’s loyalty to Obama is mutual. On Tuesday, the president interrupted his press secretary’s final White House briefing to sing the praises of a man he hired to work on his first presidential campaign from Iowa.

“Of the folks that I’ve had the great joy and pleasure of working with over the last 10 years on this incredible journey, you know, this guy ranks as high as just about anybody I’ve worked with,” Obama said.

And besides, who could resist a guy named Josh Earnest? “If someone is speaking on your behalf,” Obama said, it’s “a pretty good name to have.”

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