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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, May 24, 2018 12:40 pm

President Trump's interactions with media: Not a standout in any category

Glenn Kessler | The Washington Post

CNN's Brian Stelter: "The president has not held a press conference at the White House for 400 days. Why is that?"

White House aide Kellyanne Conway: "The president talks to people all the time. I saw –"

Stelter: "But not a solo press conference."

Conway: "Well, he has, let me read this to you. According to Martha Kumar, the director of the White House transition – "

Stelter: "My former professor, yes."

Conway: "That's right. President Trump did 170 short question-and-answer sessions through April 29, compared to 55 for President Obama." – Exchange on CNN's 'Reliable Sources," May 20, 2018

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Conway is a relentless advocate for President Donald Trump, and in this back-and-forth on CNN, she quickly rebutted a complaint that the president has had only one solo news conference during his presidency with some facts of her own – that the president has had three times as many question-and-answer sessions as Barack Obama in the same period.

Her response was a bit of a non sequitur, as Stelter was asking about news conferences. But it got the Fact Checker wondering about the rest of the data and how Trump stacked up against other recent presidents.

The Facts

Martha Kumar, professor emeritus at Towson University, assiduously keeps track of every presidential interaction with the media, dating to Ronald Reagan. She graciously shared her data, including some of her spreadsheets, to show us how she tracks the information.

Kumar keeps track of three broad categories – short question-and-answer sessions, interviews and news conferences. The news conferences are further divided between solo news conference and joint news conferences with foreign leaders or other officials. For Trump, she has also been counting tweets – 3,201 as of April 29, which is one year and 100 days after he took office.

Each president has had his own communication style. While Conway emphasized Trump doing more Q&As than Obama, she failed to note that Obama had done about double the number of interviews as Trump. Kumar said Obama vastly preferred media interviews, conducting about 1,000 during his eight-year presidency.

If you were to add up all of the interactions with the media as of April 29, Trump, Obama and George W. Bush are roughly the same. The most loquacious was Bill Clinton.

The biggest difference is solo news conferences – the point that Stelter was trying to make. Trump has had only one solo news conference, compared with 34 for George H.W. Bush, 18 for Bill Clinton, 13 for Obama, nine for Reagan and five for George W. Bush.

We would argue that solo news conferences are helpful for presidents, because it forces them to confront possible contradictions in their policies and often results in needed adjustments. But Trump is clearly not a fan of the genre.

George H.W. Bush essentially started the tradition of the joint news conference, which is why Reagan does not have any. Reagan's numbers also require a caveat – he spent about a month during this period recuperating after being shot. 

The Pinocchio Test

Conway cherry-picked the numbers to highlight the category in which Trump does best against Obama – short Q&A sessions with reporters. But compared with other recent presidents, Trump is not a standout in that category – and is dead last in holding solo news conferences. Conway earns Two Pinocchios.