Former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at the Berkeley Forum

Conversations February 22, 2019

Mr. Earnest appeared at the Berkeley Forum on October 12, 2017. Mr. Earnest’s talk centered around the role of innovative communications strategies in bolstering the presence of both the President and the White House in an evolving media landscape. The event was moderated by Shaina Zuber.

Shaina Zuber: Thank you so much for being here. We’re so excited to have you here.

Josh Earnest: Thanks. I’m delighted to be here. It’s an honor.

Shaina Zuber: I want to touch on something you mentioned in your speech. You described media interaction today as being more of a food fight than a discussion. Given your role as press secretary, how did this understanding of the press guide how you issued press statements or answered questions in briefings?

Josh Earnest: That’s an excellent question. What I’m sure of is I’m sure I’m not the first White House spokesperson to complain about this, and I’m sure that George Washington’s press secretary had the same [complaint]. But what is just undeniable is there were countless times where I would walk out to the briefing room, prepared to roll out a new policy and to discuss a new announcement or a new idea that we were ready to put forward, and I would get more questions about the criticism of that policy that came from either left or the right than about the policy itself. I haven’t been there in nine months and I’m still frustrated by it. But that the essence of our system, and if you think about it, this is the vulnerability in our political ecosystem that Trump has expertly capitalized on, exploited. This is why he uses Twitter and says outrageous things on Twitter. It distracts from a bunch of other things that we should be talking about, and it degrades our political debate.

So, the way that I tried to take this on was to remember that it was my responsibility, as an advocate for the president and as an advocate for the president’s policies, that when I walked into the briefing room, my responsibility was not to charge through the door and prove that all the reporters’ skeptical questions were wrong. And the reason that that is an unwise strategy is it’s the reporters themselves who are going to characterize the debate for their readers and their viewers, and there is never going to be a day that they begin their story by writing or saying, “Today, the White House Press Secretary proved us all wrong!” So, in the midst of an environment where people are focused on fighting, at least one way to combat that is to martial evidence, to present facts, to substantiate your case, and that’s what I tried to do when I prepared for the briefing every day, was to help the journalists who were in that room understand what our argument was, understand the basis for that argument, and to be able to write some evidence about why our argument just might be right.

That strategy proved to work well, but not perfectly. I think there are a variety of things that make the White House briefing different now than it was before, and one of them is that when you listen to the people who stand behind that podium now, they’re often not in a position where they are making an argument. If you listen, you often hear lots of assertions, some of which have some basis in reality and some which don’t, you hear a lot of promises, some of which are within the realm of the possible and many of which are not, and it undermines their ability to be particularly persuasive. And I think that shows up in the coverage of the briefing, and I think it shows up in the coverage of the White House.

Shaina Zuber: As you mentioned, the relationship between the current administration and the press has been fairly antagonistic, with President Trump using terms such as “fake news” to describe major media outlets. Given this, what do you think is the ideal relationship between the press and the administration? Do you think it should be more access-based, more adversarial? What do you think creates the most ideal situation for a democracy?

Josh Earnest: The relationship between the White House press corps and the White House is supposed to be adversarial, and the day that it’s not is the day that the press corps stop doing their jobs. I made that observation frequently when people would, about every month or so, want to assess the state of the relationship between the Obama White House and White House press corps at the time. There were some times when it would be good, some times when they would be pretty frustrated that there hadn’t been a news conference in a while, for example, and it was my job, standing at the nexus of that relationship, to try to defuse that tension, or at least keep that tension from preventing either side from doing their job effectively. If the press corps was so amped up, and angry, and frustrated about the fact that we hadn’t had a news conference in six weeks, that’s going to color their coverage, so we need to try to find a way to resolve that. If the president and members of his senior staff are so exasperated by the kind of coverage that they’re getting from the press corps, there are some who may have the instinct that, well, we should stop dealing with them, we should stop engaging with them, or stop returning that person’s phone calls. That’s not an effective way for managing that relationship because if you don’t return that reporter’s phone call, I guarantee that he or she is continuing to write good stories, and they’re not going to make it better if you ignore them.

So, I view that as an important part of my responsibility, is to try to manage that relationship. So, my job was not to eliminate tension or to prevent disagreements from arising. My responsibility was to try to manage and mitigate those disagreements and that tension so that it stayed at a sustainable level that would allow both sides to continue to do their job, and I think ultimately that is the kind of relationship that best serves the president and the White House. It’s a relationship that well serves the American public in terms of ensuring that there are independent, professional journalists on the job every day holding the White House accountable, holding people in power accountable.

So, it doesn’t sound like a particularly ideal situation, but democracy is a little messy. It’s supposed to be when it’s working. That’s evidence that it’s working. I remember that there was one particularly well-respected political journalist in Washington who was frustrated for a reason that even to this day I don’t quite know, but who described the lack of transparency on the part of the White House as “dangerous.” Dangerous! I think we now know what the lack of transparency that’s dangerous looks like. It looks a lot different than the relations that we had.

Shaina Zuber: Some of these issues of dealing with the press relationship included controversies surrounding the Obama Administration’s decision to prosecute whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, or decisions to not allow FOIA requests. How do you think this impacted your job as press secretary and the relationship with the press?

Josh Earnest: Look, we had lots of debates about transparency, and this was a common point of tension in the relationship between the White House and the White House press corps. But again, if there’s ever a day where the reporters are sitting at the back of the room saying, “Boy, you guys have responded to more than 90% of the FOIA requests that we’ve submitted. Thank you so much for your service. We’re really satisfied with that.” They should be out there saying, “Well, where’s the other 10%?” That is their job. They should never be satisfied. So, I was comfortable with the critique and the insistence on the part of journalists that there should be more transparency. I think what I was not comfortable with were expressions like “a dangerous lack of transparency,” or exaggerated suggestions that somehow the White House was more hostile to reporters than even the Nixon Administration, something that is not true, but something that a number of journalists said.

To illustrate for you how much of a point of tension this was, I actually wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times about this, and the argument that I made in that letter was simply that this is supposed to be a point of tension between the White House and the press corps, but when there are things that we get right, there should be an acknowledgement that we got them right. There has to be some kind of built-in positive reinforcement mechanism if you’re advocating for something, and there’s nobody in the world that has the time to be a consistent, well-informed, persistent advocate for transparency other than the White House press corps, and you’re not going to be an effective advocate if the people that you are holding accountable aren’t occasionally given credit for getting it right. It doesn’t mean you should say you’re satisfied, but just the acknowledgement where progress is made is important to effective advocacy.

If you think about this in a different setting: If you work for the NRA, you don’t just spend all your time beating up on the Democrats who don’t toe the line. You also want to look for ways to give credit for those who are on your side. That makes them an extraordinarily effective advocacy organization in Washington, and I think it is one way in which the White House press corps’ advocacy on this issue fell short and made them, in some cases, not as effective as they could.

Shaina Zuber: Do you think this has any spillover effects into the press’ current relationship with the current administration?

Josh Earnest: No, to be blunt. I do think that there might have been a situation where you could’ve made an argument that, again, in an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton was president, that you had—to be blunt about it—people in positions of authority who were making more rational decisions about how to act with the press corps, where you could basically point to the experience of the Obama Administration, where we got criticized even in those situations where we made progress. And then when that progress was rolled back under a Clinton White House, hypothetically, you could say, “Well, what argument can you make to the Clinton people that they should keep doing it when you didn’t give the Obama people credit for doing it?” But I don’t think that the Trump people are making their decisions based on the way that we did things, and in some cases the things that serve as a kind of tension with the press corps I think are often decisions that were made without any consideration whatsoever of the press corps’ interests.

Shaina Zuber: Along these lines, in an interview on CNN, you stated that in the position of press secretary, you and the recently resigned Sean Spicer had maintained a very different set of responsibilities. How do you think the administration or the president impacts the role of press secretary and how they interact with the press?

Josh Earnest: That’s a great question. The responsibility of the press secretary is set by the president. You’re the spokesperson for the President of the United States, and you have a responsibility to perform according to the instructions and wishes of the president. Now, there are competing interests. You also have a responsibility to tell the truth. So, some White House spokespeople have encountered a conflict in those two competing priorities, but those were never competing priorities [for me]. There was never a day where the president came into my office and said, “You know what, Josh, I want you to be really careful today. I want you to be sure to tell the truth.” He never had to say that. He didn’t have to say it the other way, too. He also never had to come into my office and say, “Now, be sure you don’t lie.” That was a core requirement, and that is something that starts at the top. When you are leading an organization, you have just as much influence over that organization based on what you do as by what you say. And how President Obama conducted himself, by holding himself to a very high standard, was a practice that other senior administration officials tried to emulate, and certainly one of the reasons that we didn’t have the same kind of scandals in the Obama Administration that other administrations have had, not just the current administration. And while certainly staff members deserve credit for that, it starts at the top, and that’s true when you’re talking about positive things, like avoiding scandals, but it’s true when you’re talking negative things too.

Shaina Zuber: Thank you so much for answering my questions. We’re now going to offer the opportunity for audience questions.

Audience Member: You talked about the responsibility of independent journalists, but I wanted to get your thoughts on the medium that journalists use. What role do you think tech companies and social media companies play as a form of the medium that journalists use to spread their message?

Josh Earnest: This is a great question and one that is being debated in Washington, D.C., one that’s being debated in newsrooms all around the world—and certainly as a subject of concern—by people who get their news in a very different way than they used to even five or eight years ago. The example that I’ve often cited is: In the last couple of years of the Obama Administration, we really prioritized our effort to be more creative and to integrate social media tools into our efforts to inform the public about what we were doing. So, that meant that we would make news, make announcements, offer up new ideas in ways other than just issuing a White House news release that we emailed to our White House press list. Sometimes we would send tweets. Sometimes we would post a video or a message to the President’s Facebook page or to the White House Facebook page.

There were times early in that transition where very sophisticated White House journalists would come to my office and they would knock on the door and say, “Josh, can I come in?” I’d say, “Sure, come on in.” And they would say, “Listen, I saw that you sent that tweet from President Obama about that announcement.” I said, “Yeah, we did, we did. It got retweeted tens of thousands of times.” They said, “If you do that again, will you send me an email to give me a heads up that you’ve done that?” And I said, “Well, I’ll try, but I can’t promise I’m going to do that.” But what that illustrates is even the people who are highly-trained professionals who work long hours and have dedicated their career to closely following what’s happening at the White House have a hard time keeping up in this news environment. It moves so quickly that even they have a hard time keeping track of all that’s happening, so why are we particularly surprised that the American public is having a hard time keeping up, that they are in a situation where they have a hard time deciphering between hard news stories and fake news?

So, we do need to think hard in the midst of the dynamic news environment about what we can do to bolster confidence in the news media, and more effectively and consistently give people reliable information about our political system. I certainly do think that technology does have the potential of addressing many elements of this problem, but another thing that we can do is make sure that, in our schools all across America, that we are training sophisticated consumers of information. We know that we live in an age where information is an important element of our economy, so there’s a good reason to do that. We’re not just educating good citizens, but people who can succeed in our economy if we teach them how to evaluate, consume, and make decisions about information, and the more that we can put good thinkers in our education system or produce good thinkers in our education system, the better off our economy is just going to be. Good question.

Audience Member: Cody Keenan talks about that week in 2015 where the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the Supreme Court, same sex marriage was legalized in all 50 states, and then the president sang Amazing Grace [after the shooting in Charleston]. So, not counting when the royals visited the White House, is there any week that stands out for you like that one stands out for him?

Josh Earnest: You’ve done your homework. For those of you who don’t know, Cody Keenan was the president’s head speech writer for the last three years that he was in office. Cody is an extraordinarily talented writer, and he’s very clever on Twitter, so if you don’t follow him I recommend you do so.

The week of the election was a remarkable week in so many different ways and for so many different reasons. I was shocked by the outcome and so many of my colleagues in the White House were as well. I remember sitting on the sofa in my living room, watching the returns come in. I was sitting there with my wife and she, every 20 minutes or so, would look at me and she’d say, “You nervous yet?” And I’d say, “Nah, it’s going to be fine. The votes are still coming in.” I live in the state of Virginia. We voted in the state of Virginia. Virginia was one of those places where Trump started out with a big lead that was very disconcerting to a lot of people, but over the course of the evening Hillary made up ground and steadily eroded his margin, and actually ended up winning the state. And I expected/hoped that we would see a similar phenomenon in Michigan, and Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and Florida, and when it became clear that we were going to need to see that situation replicated in all of those states at the same time, then I knew it was time to worry.

But look, what was remarkable about that week was the day after the election. I stayed up late the night of the election, knowing that I was going to have to do the daily briefing the next day and answer a lot of tough, pressing questions about the rhetoric that President Obama had used on the campaign trail. He had said that he did not have confidence that the country would be safe with the nuclear codes in the hands of Donald Trump. He said that he’d pose a threat to our democracy. He said that Trump was likely to be in a position to succeed in rolling back a whole bunch of the progress that we’d made with the Obama Administration. He’d painted a pretty bleak picture about what could possibly happen if Trump was elected president – and then Trump was elected president. I also anticipated getting questions about how we could be so wrong given that Trump’s entire political identity was rooted in opposing Obama. I anticipated a lot of questions about whether or not this was a pretty stark rebuke from the American public to the Obama White House about what we had done.

So, it was a hard day and one that was physically demanding and emotionally demanding, but I took a lot of inspiration from the president speaking in the Rose Garden that afternoon after Secretary Clinton had conceded. President Obama went out to the Rose Garden and said that history doesn’t move in a straight line, progress doesn’t move in a straight line, and there’s zigs and zags, and occasionally we move back before we move forward, and that’s why it’s important to take the long view and to keep a long-term perspective in regard to the trajectory of our country. He expressed his commitment to ensuring a smooth transition to the incoming administration. It reminded me of the notion that in countering and overcoming adversity, it doesn’t build character necessarily, but it certainly reveals it, and I thought President Obama revealed a lot of character in that moment, and I tried to live up to the standard that he set when I moved to the Briefing Room later that day.

The other thing that has been reported about that day is that President Obama went around the White House to talk to his White House staff and to buck them up, to encourage them, to console them. He showed incredible leadership that day, on a day that must have been very difficult for him, and he did most of that work in private. It revealed, to me, yet again, the high-quality character that he is.

Audience Member: My question is: The reputation of D.C. is [that] everyone inside the Beltway knows everybody, hangs out with everybody. I’m curious what your relationship with the press is like on a personal level. Do you have friends or drinking buddies? Were friendships gained or destroyed before, during, and after your time in the White House?

Josh Earnest: Good question. What I will tell you is that I, like many people in Washington, have friendly relationships with reporters. It’s particularly interesting now because I’m employed by a news organization; I’m a contributor to NBC News. But the thing that I constantly remembered when I was at the White House is that it is entirely appropriate—even my responsibility—to be friendly with reporters, but let’s also remember that reporters are not your friends.

We were staying about an hour away from the summit site because of security restrictions, because all the world leaders were attending the summit. So, we stayed at a hotel in Bali that had a very nice swimming pool that overlooked the ocean, and as was customary, President Obama left the summit before the press corps because the press corps would often want to stay—the TV reports in particular—and do a news report on location in Bali, summarizing the President’s trip. So, the timing worked out that we stayed for six or eight or ten hours after President Obama had left Bali, and we were staying at this hotel because of the time difference. It was during the day in Bali. President Obama was somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on a plane. Nobody had any practical, functional responsibilities, so it meant that you had White House press staff and all these reporters swimming in the swimming pool overlooking the Indian Ocean in Bali. So, yeah, there were times where I get my shirt off and I’m in the swimming pool hanging out with these journalists who were in their clothes too. When in Bali!

But the thing that I can tell you is those close quarters we were working in meant that, yeah, you developed a friendly relationship with the reporters, but you get back on that plane and you get back to the United States of America, and you’re on opposite sides again. And that adversarial relationship, even if it was sort of suspended in unique moments like that, I’m not at all under the impression that anybody ever went easy on me because we had a couple of hours in the sun in Bali. Good question.

Audience Member: I was just wondering, with a White House Secretary who has to find that balance, like you said, between truth and sometimes what the press is trying to convey, what is your advice to [Sarah Huckabee Sanders]?

Josh Earnest: Tell the truth. That really is it. Look, there are situations where it can be really hard to take on a question that basically everybody knows the answer to, and there is a way to present a case that can shape the answer to the question that doesn’t require you to mobilize false information. So, let me give you a good example of that.

In 2014, President Obama was, in many ways, at the nadir of his political influence, and this is not uncommon for presidents after six years that their influence starts to wane. Congress had been particularly dysfunctional. Republicans had majority in the House and they were using that to really flummox any effort that we were making to move forward. Democrats were trying desperately to try to hang on to their majority in the Senate, and of course they did not, in part because President Obama was not particularly popular at that point. And in the run up to that election, I got a lot of intense questions about: Isn’t it true, Josh, that President Obama doesn’t have the kind of political influence that he used to have, even among Democrats, and the Democrats who are running for reelection don’t want to be seen with the President of the United States and they don’t want him to come campaign for them in their home states?

And of course that was true! Anybody who knows a thing about politics knew that was true, but I wasn’t going to walk out there and say, “Yeah, the President just doesn’t have much stroke and all these Democrats are probably going to run from him.” What I did was I went out there and said, “The truth is President Obama continues to have a lot of influence over Democrats, and President Obama has put forward a message that a lot of people continue to support. And while the public approval rating of President Obama’s performance as president is lower than it has been in the past, the approval of him as a person is still pretty much higher than any other person involved in American politics right now.”

So, it is possible to make an argument to try to shape the answer to the question that everybody already knows the answer to without standing up and saying, “Of course that’s not true! We’ve turned down all kinds of invitations to go campaign places,” which seems like the kind of answer you might here in this environment. But, of course, it was not true. That’s an excellent question. Thanks for asking.

Audience Member: Do you think that democracy is the end or a step towards something greater?

[Laughter]

Josh Earnest: You have learned something that many White House journalists have not learned, which is that there is an inverse proportional relationship to the length of a question and how easy it is to answer. If a reporter was going to go on and on and ask a 90-second-long question, it was going to be pretty easy to answer, because they’re opening up all these avenues for responding to them. But when you ask a question as directly as you have, people are going to be listening carefully to the answer to see if you’ve answered it. So, he’s got a bright future in journalism if he chooses to pursue it.

I’m pretty optimistic, and I think that it is possible for the democracy that we have in this country right now to improve and to get better and to get stronger. And I think the healthiest democracies are the ones that are constantly evolving, constantly reinventing themselves, either in response to outside forces or in response to the preferences of their citizens. Technology can shape it, the issues that we’re asking the government to confront can shape it, and whether that’s climate change or a conflict with another country, the best democracies are the ones that are going to be responsive to those outside forces and responsive to the needs of their citizens. And that’s not just going to shape the debate; it’s going to shape the essence of our government.

And I think part of the problem we have right now is that our democracy is pretty brittle, that we sort of keep bumping into the same kinds of constraints that have prevented us from doing things that are pretty obvious, things that are strongly supported by a vast majority of the country. A strong majority of Americans support things like comprehensive immigration reform, a smart investment in our infrastructure, common sense gun control. There are things that we can do, but our brittle democracy right now is preventing those things from happening, and what we need is we need our democracy to adapt and start electing people to office that aren’t just looking to pick a fight, but are actually looking to consider ideas where we can find some common ground.

This is a good way to end. It goes back to that argument that I was making before. It’s easy to get attention for yourself if you can engage in a fight and colorfully criticize and trash your opponent or somebody on the other side. It takes a little more work to try to think of a new idea or a creative solution, and then work with somebody who may not totally agree with you to find some common ground on that idea. And the way that we’re going to get to see that change is if people who are in elected office feel pressure from us to choose that path, and I think that’s the sign of a healthy democracy, and I’m optimistic that at some point… I don’t know if it’s going to be the next election, in the midterms, or if it’s going to be the next presidential election, or where down the line, but at some point we’re going to make that adaptation and we’re going to be better for it. It is authoritarian governments that don’t adapt very well. People who are in authoritarian positions of power are not used to responding to pressure and making changes, but that’s the essence of our democracy, and so I am optimistic that our country will continue to be a democracy. But if our democracy is going to be healthy and succeed, it’s going to continue to evolve. Great question.