McEnany’s inaugural briefing featured none of the major brawls with reporters that have become hallmarks of the Trump presidency. McEnany was greeted with a cheerful “welcome” by almost every reporter she called on, and pledged in response to one question that “I will never lie to you” from the lectern.
Though McEnany pledged to be honest with reporters, she grew somewhat heated when discussing the legal issues surrounding Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. McEnany raised Flynn’s case without prompting from reporters, telling them that “a case of injustice that has yet to be brought up today.”
The new press secretary’s indignation came as new FBI documents unsealed this week shed more light on the origins of the criminal case against Flynn.
The former national security adviser was fired after just 24 days for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition. Later that year, he pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about those contacts, a plea Flynn is now trying to withdraw by arguing that he was set up by the FBI.
But McEnany, who repeatedly glanced down at notes on her lectern when discussing the issue, inaccurately described what Flynn’s supporters have called the “smoking gun” from some of the documents, describing to reporters “a handwritten FBI noted that says ‘We need to get Flynn to lie,’ and get him fired.”
“That was an unfair target on the back of General Michael Flynn. It should concern every American any time there is a partisan pursuit of an individual,” she asserted.
In truth, the handwritten notes McEnany was referring to, dated the day Flynn was interviewed in 2017, show more of a debate about how forthcoming to be with him or others at the White House about the nature of the FBI investigation.
They reflect deliberation about whether confronting Flynn with a lie in real time would be helpful to their investigation.
“What is our goal? Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” the notes read.
Though she asserted Flynn’s prosecution was a miscarriage of justice, she dodged questions on whether Flynn actually lied to Pence, whether Trump thinks he lied and why he pleaded guilty.
It was during this back and forth that McEnany brought the briefing to a close.
“Thank you guys so much, I’m going to cut that short now and see my 5-month-old in a few hours,” she said with a smile.
A typically mundane everyday occurrence in past administrations, the daily press briefing has become particularly polarized since Trump assumed office in 2017.
His first press secretary, Sean Spicer, came out with guns blazing in his briefing room debut just a day after Trump was sworn into office, insisting that the president’s inauguration had been the best-attended in history despite photographic evidence that clearly contradicted him. His relations with reporters and his performance remained rocky until he was eventually replaced by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was the last Trump press secretary to hold a daily briefing.
But Sanders, too, was not immune to frequent clashes with the press. Until Friday, Sanders’ March 11, 2019, news conference had been the most recent press secretary briefing.
When Stephanie Grisham took the reins in the press shop last summer, she continued to eschew the formal televised daily briefing. In September, she derided the once-regular sessions as an act of “theater” for reporters seeking “to get famous” during the televised news conferences.
On Friday, McEnany affirmed that she planned to revive the briefings, which had resumed under a different form during the coronavirus pandemic, featuring the president and members of his coronavirus task force.
The White House began to shift away from that kind of marathon session — which routinely dragged on for more than two hours — only this week, after the president’s allies expressed fears that news conferences were hurting his political standing more than helping it.