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Why Doesn't Hillary Clinton Have More Press Conferences?

Hillary Clinton holds a press conference regarding her U.N. Woman's Day speech and the email server controversy at the United Nations on March 10, 2015, in New York City.
Steve Sands
Getty Images
Hillary Clinton holds a press conference regarding her U.N. Woman's Day speech and the email server controversy at the United Nations on March 10, 2015, in New York City.

Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump taunted Hillary Clinton over the length of time it had been since she had formally faced a pack of reporters with microphones, cameras, iPhones and notepads at the ready.

"So, it's been 235 days since crooked Hillary Clinton has had a press conference," Trump told reporters and supporters who gathered in Miami on July 27. "You, as reporters who give her all of these glowing reports, should ask yourselves why."

Why that's the case requires a layered answer, involving events as fresh as Trump's own missteps in recent days and as dated as Clinton's memories of the first years of her husband's administration.

For the moment, Trump is busy sabotaging himself in full public view: attacking the grieving parents of a Muslim U.S. Army officer killed while protecting comrades in Iraq; making easily disprovable claims that even his campaign cannot sustain; attacking fellow Republican leaders such as Sen. John McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Democratic strategist Lis Smith says the Clinton campaign is taking a calculated risk in failing to hold a press conference with reporters since last December.

Journalists care about such things, Smith says. Clinton aides know that voters typically don't, she says: "As they're watching Donald Trump implode daily, with his impolitic statements and gaffes, they're sitting back and laughing."

Smith, who has never worked for either Bill or Hillary Clinton, led Barack Obama's rapid response team on the 2012 campaign and was deputy campaign manager for Martin O'Malley until he dropped out of the primaries. She says the Clinton campaign is more likely to react if local media outlets and figures in key swing states criticize her for a lack of press conferences.

Otherwise, she says, never interfere when your foe is busily doing your dirty work for you in discrediting himself.

As former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod tweeted: "If I were @HillaryClinton, I might embark on summer tour of America's splendid national parks & cede the stage entirely to@realDonaldTrump."

Yet Clinton's recalcitrance toward press conferences has endured for months.

In late May, CNN's Jake Tapper sought to pin Clinton down during a televised interview by phone, asking her when she'd remedy that.

"Oh, I'm sure we will," Clinton said in the May 31 interview. (So far, she hasn't.)

Clinton then suggested there are other, better ways to glean insights from a candidate.

"I was shocked myself that I've done nearly 300 interviews and they're not even sure they've captured all the that ones I've done," Clinton said. "I believe that we do and we should answer questions. Of course I'm going to, in many, many different kinds of settings."

Modern presidents have often sought to circumvent the filter of the traditional media. President George W. Bush relied on interviews with local television stations, while President Obama mixes up interviews with conventional outlets such as CBS News and The Atlantic with newer outlets such as Vox, BuzzFeed, Reddit, and Zach Galifianakis' Between the Ferns. Neither view press conferences with great favor.

And Clinton has a point: Interviews can prove illuminating. Clinton's aides and surrogates have invoked the large and climbing number of interviews many times. As modern campaigns almost invariably keep a running tally of such interactions, I asked Clinton's press office late Wednesday night for an itemization of those 300 interviews. On Thursday, midday, I was promised a detailed reply. None arrived by midnight.

Even when Clinton does interviews, however, she can encounter choppy waters. Last weekend, after the conclusion of the Democratic convention, she gave an interview to Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace. Her characterization of what FBI Director James Comey said about her email servers was widely panned.

There's a historic context, too.

According to political professionals who have followed her closely, Clinton has never enjoyed the give-and-take with scrums of reporters. Part of it stems from her personality. She is said to shine in smaller settings. And part arises from her history.

A generation ago, as first lady of Arkansas and of the United States, Hillary Clinton felt badly treated by the press during coverage of scandals (that she insisted were not scandals) and setbacks (that could have cost Clinton an independent career of her own).

In 1994 she held her own press conference to try to lance the boil, acknowledging a steady drumbeat of questions over a series of transactions encompassed in the Whitewater flap and the collapse of the health care overhaul she championed.

Clinton told reporters assembled in the White House State Dining Room that she had always tried to answer the questions to reporters on the campaign trail in informal settings or in one-on-one interviews with local media outlets.

"I really was under the misimpression that if I answered them in Rochester or answered them in St. Louis, or somewhere else, that should be enough," Clinton told reporters. "And I just didn't understand enough about being accessible to all of you or being accessible in Washington. And so I came to that realization. And that's why I'm here."

Yet history echoed itself in March 2015, when Clinton held an awkwardly orchestrated press conference at the United Nations. It was intended to allow her to be seen confronting deepening concerns about Clinton's use of a private email server for sensitive State Department matters. It turned into something of a debacle.

Smith, the Democratic consultant, says too many candidates are too worried about making the wrong kind of news. The Senate was a kind of rolling press conference for Clinton; the remove of the State Department and Clinton Foundation left her rusty, Smith says.

"The longer you go without doing a press conference, the longer you you give reporters the ability to come up with killer questions and the longer you give reporters the ability to build up a simmering rage," Smith says.

Reporters on the trail say Clinton's warmed up, a bit, taking questions in gaggles — brief on-the-record exchanges with reporters traveling with her on the campaign. Such moments provide hope of more direct interactions — but so far, it's just that.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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