For the past eight years, a presidential news conference was a chance to hear from Professor Barack Obama, the long-winded lecturer-in-chief who expounded on domestic politics and international relations with nuance, depth, range and, most of all, a lot of words.
Under the new administration, brevity is in.
President Donald Trump, who has carved out a niche online as the tweeter-in-chief, is willing to go beyond 140 characters while fielding questions from reporters at the White House. But sometimes, it seems, not by much.
Trump’s joint news conferences with foreign leaders are brisker affairs. He is not interested in filibustering answers to run out the clock, the way Obama did, but prefers racing through them in a mix of simplistic declarative sentences, ad-libs and non sequiturs.
When he does fall back on talking points, as all politicians inevitably do, they are not the kind that come from a briefing book prepared by an aide. Rather, Trump’s talking points often appear to spring from his own id and have little or nothing to do with the subject at hand.
Wednesday offered another example.
Appearing in the East Room with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Trump answered a question about whether the United States was giving up on a two-state solution to Middle East peace, a major change in policy, with 74 words that amounted to his being okay with two states, one state or “the one that both parties like.”
To a question about his proposal to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move that could inflame tensions with the Palestinians — Trump was even briefer, offering a 38-word response that he’d “love to see that happen” and that his administration was “looking at it very, very strongly … with great care, believe me.”
He did not explain why, what factors he was considering or when it might happen.
Most perplexing was Trump’s response to a pointed challenge from an Israeli journalist who suggested that many in the Jewish community say that his brand of politics is propagating racism, xenophobia and a rise of anti-Semitism in the United States.
Trump spent slightly more time answering this thorny question: 230 words. But the first 56 of them centered on one of his most reliable talking points: boasting about his electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton.
“We were not supposed to crack 220,” he said. Turning to Netanyahu on his right, Trump sought some affirmation: “You know that, right?”
Taking on the question more generally, Trump then offered a number of sweeping promises —: “We are going to have peace,” “We are going to stop crime” — before pointing out that he has “so many friends” who are Jewish, including his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both sitting in the front row.
Trump wrapped up by predicting that “a lot of good things” would happen to the country under his watch: “You’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love. Okay? Thanks.”
Trump didn’t even bother denying the accusations laid out in the reporter’s question.
In all, Trump spoke fewer than 1,000 words in response to questions from four reporters. By comparison, when Obama joined Netanyahu for a joint news conference in Jerusalem in 2013, he employed more than 2,350 words in fielding queries from four reporters.
Trump’s economy of words at his White House news conferences matches other aspects of his governing style. He is said not to read books and prefers aides to deliver policy reviews in one-page documents replete with bullet points.
Obama, in his final year, carved out hours of his time to discuss his legacy with historians and magazine writers in long-form interviews, even penning his own treatises of 5,000 words for academic journals. Trump prefers to engage in the sound-bite pithiness of cable news and quick-cut optics of reality TV.
During a hastily arranged joint appearance with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last weekend in the wake of North Korea’s ballistic missile test, Trump stepped to the lectern after Abe and appeared to disregard a written statement prepared by staffers.
Instead, he spoke 23 words off the cuff: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
Trump neglected to mention another U.S. ally in equal, if not greater, potential jeopardy: South Korea.
If Obama, a former constitutional law professor, came across as overly cerebral and, on occasion, haughty, Trump’s style makes him appear unprepared or, at times, disinterested.
But both presidents have used their unique styles to obfuscate on knotty issues.
Obama’s answers often drowned his audience — in this case, reporters — in an ocean of words, making modest shifts in the administration’s position nearly indecipherable and requiring attentive listening even as it became difficult to remember the question.
Trump’s quick changes of topic can make it challenging for reporters to pin him down. Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, often move on to another questioner so quickly that reporters are unable to ask a follow-up. And the White House has been accused of favoring conservative-leaning news outlets in hopes of getting friendly questions and coverage.
Trump is also adept at employing verbal assaults on his political rivals, including reporters, to divert attention and gain the upper hand.
He opened his answers Wednesday by reiterating his attack, first leveled on Twitter, against the “fake media” for its treatment of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned earlier in the week amid reports that he had misled the administration about his contact with Russian government officials.
Later in the day, however, Trump had less to say about the circumstances of Andrew Puzder, who withdrew as Trump’s labor secretary nominee amid widespread bipartisan opposition.
In an impromptu session outside his office, Spicer told reporters that a presidential statement on Puzder was forthcoming. A few moments later, an aide handed Spicer a note, and the spokesman amended his guidance: The president would have nothing to say after all.