Josh Earnest was the White House press secretary under President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017. Before that, he served as principal deputy White House press secretary and chief of staff to Press Secretary Jay Carney. He was succeeded in January by President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer.
Harvard Political Review: You are one of few officials in the Obama administration who stayed on for his entire presidency. What would you describe as the major changes you noticed in former President Barack Obama over the course of those eight years?
Josh Earnest: There are a couple of things that come to mind. The first is that when President Obama first entered office, the United States was facing a financial crisis the likes of which we hadn’t seen in almost 100 years. He entered the White House at a very interesting time, which meant that he had to act urgently and with dispatch to try to prevent a global financial calamity that would have generational consequences. What it meant was that the president had to make a bunch of immediate decisions, and once the situation stabilized, the president was able to make longer-term decisions. He was able to do that in the midst of a crisis, but it was only something that became perceptible later in his presidency.
Let me give you one example. When President Obama took office, there were two great American car companies that were teetering at the brink of financial collapse, which would probably have taken the entire American auto industry down with it, a million jobs lost. The president, working closely with his advisors, engineered a rescue effort that included investing billions in taxpayer dollars in those auto companies. That solution polled poorly with the American public. It even polled poorly in Michigan, a state whose economy depended on the rescue of the auto industry. It was not clear at the beginning that it was going to work, but by the end of his presidency, just six years later, we protected all of those jobs, there were another 800,000 jobs created in the manufacturing sector, and you had the American auto industry, including Chrysler and GM that were on the brink of bankruptcy, that were producing and selling more cars than they ever had in their history. It was not immediately obvious at the beginning; it was certainly not popular at the beginning, but by the end, just six years later, the results of that policy were indisputable.
HPR: Recently, Press Secretary Sean Spicer barred certain news outlets from a news briefing. What are the broader implications of this for the media’s ability to serve as a watchdog?
JE: What’s evident from the first six weeks is that the media is not having any trouble at all being the watchdog. That is a testament to really good journalists who take their jobs seriously and are doing an excellent job with it. It has to do with a very engaged American citizenry.
When you see the cable news outlets are all enjoying significant boosts in their viewership, when newspapers are enjoying an increase in their circulation, when we see the way that political debates, for better or worse, have infused so much of our day-to-day life, an engaged population is a really good thing. There are lots of journalists that are out there doing good work to hold the administration accountable. It’s very fair to say that the administration is not as invested in supporting that role for our journalists as most Americans would like to see them be, but I think for the most part, we’re seeing journalists do important work and do it well.
HPR: The Obama administration also faced criticism for its handling of the media, specifically its crackdown on whistleblowers and its slow response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Do you think the criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the media is similar to that of the Obama administration?
JE: No, I don’t think those two things are comparable. It is the job of journalists who cover the White House to demand more access, to demand more transparency, and to demand more accountability. If there’s ever a day where they express satisfaction with the access and accountability that they’ve gotten from the White House, they’ve stopped doing their jobs.
I would expect, and I did expect, when we were in the White House, for people to demand more from the Obama administration. For example, when it came to FOIA requests, the administration was responsive to, and provided information responsive to, more than 90 percent of the requests that we received: some hundreds of thousands of requests every year. That wasn’t every one, so I would expect some journalists to push for more. The fact is that they got a lot when it came to responsiveness to FOIA. I’m not saying that that process is perfect, but I am saying that the picture may not be as bleak as it seems.
With regard to leakers, about half of the prosecutions that our critics like to cite were prosecutions that were commenced under the previous administration. With regard to some of the others, we’re talking about individuals who were accused—and in many cases convicted—of serious crimes, of failing to adhere to the oath that they took to protect classified information. The truth is, in the context of the Obama administration, we put in place additional protections for whistleblowers. We put in place additional reforms that would empower inspectors general and others to more effectively provide oversight in a way that wouldn’t endanger national security by making information public while also making sure that people could be held accountable.
HPR: You mentioned on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that fake news is “nothing new” for Republicans. Are you concerned with the emergence of similar partisan websites on the left that peddle conspiracy theories and falsehoods?
JE: I think it’s important for us to delineate a difference between straight-up investigative hard-nosed journalism and opinion journalism that is still rooted in facts but is expressing or articulating a particular point of view. Opinion journalism that is rooted in fact and evidence has a role in our public discourse as long as it’s identified as such. The fake news phenomenon is deferent from those two things. The fake news phenomenon is pieces of fiction dressed up as news to try to advance a political narrative or political objective. For example, it’s utter fiction to suggest that President Obama was not born in the United States, and that was a fiction that was propagated by the president’s political opponents to try to delegitimize him. It wasn’t rooted in any fact.
Let’s take the example of someone like Charles Krauthammer. He writes a conservative column in the Washington Post. That’s a legitimate outlet. He’s got smart things to say, not many that I agree with, but he should have the opportunity as a journalist to make those views known. They represent a world view. He makes arguments that are usually rooted in fact and evidence that I occasionally find compelling, that some people find really compelling. That’s part of a healthy debate: having smart people showing interest in our government and writing and talking about it. I think that’s a good thing, but that’s different from the journalism that you see in the other pages of the Washington Post and it’s certainly different from the fiction masquerading as news in fake news.
HPR: On Twitter, President Trump recently accused Obama of tapping his phones the month before the election. Do you think there is a method to Trump’s madness on Twitter, or do you think he’s just tweeting whatever comes to his mind?
JE: I think it’s two things. One is that even White House officials acknowledge that they had not discussed those tweets with President Trump before he sent them. To the extent that there’s a method to the madness, it’s not a method that has been orchestrated with other White House officials as part of their grand plan. But what I do think that President Trump is interested in doing is using outrageous statements like that to distract from scandals. I made this observation over the weekend, that there’s one page in the Trump crisis communication strategy playbook and that one play is to say or tweet something outrageous to distract from a scandal. The bigger the scandal, the more outrageous the comment or tweet.
It is true that there is a growing scandal with regard to President Trump and other senior Trump officials, at best, not being forthright about their talks with or ties to Russia. I think it’s difficult to explain why they continued to be less than candid about why there were so many people close to Trump who were having so many conversations with so many different Russian officials. It applies to the president himself. His son, back in 2008, said that money from Russia was flowing into their business interests, at the same time that President Trump refuses to release his tax returns and says that he didn’t do any business in Russia. These are all unanswered questions that they refuse to confront, and the president would rather say something outrageous to try to distract from the pointed questions that they’re struggling to answer.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/Lawrence Jackson