WASHINGTON — When reporters wanted answers most from the White House Friday, staff canceled the press briefing. As the manhunt for a Boston bombing suspect continues in that city, the White House and aides have gone completely silent, offering up nothing beyond a photo posted to its official Flickr account showing the president getting briefed on developments earlier in the day.
Secretary of State John Kerry did take questions about the potential diplomatic implications of the bombings at a press conference. But he declined to answer them.
For reporters sitting in the White House fielding phone calls and e-mails from editors desperate for the latest development in the story the whole world is watching, the White House’s refusal to engage is frustrating. But people who have run government communications during crisis times before defend the approach. No one knows anything, they surmise, so why say anything?
“I assume what they figure is that the situation is constantly changing/in flux and given that constant change there is very little upside in making definitive statements,” Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary, told BuzzFeed.
Jonathan Prince, a former State Dept. communications strategist under Obama, was more direct. “The situation is completely fluid,” he said. That means “you shut the hell up.”
On Friday, the White House wasn’t completely silent: Aides responded to requests for information about White House visitors and, and the press pool was given updates on various meetings the president was attending in relation to Boston.
But when it came to the broader questions in the aftermath of the attacks, there was nothing. Indefinitely postponing the daily briefing was a sign that the White House wasn’t ready to talk about Chechnya, Russia, or any other topic related to the bombings.
One reason for that, former White House communications aides said, is that when a presidential administration asks other agencies questions, they often drop everything to answer them. That means trying to suss out exactly what’s happening on the ground in a given moment could take valuable resources away from the manhunt.
Ari Fleischer, a press secretary under George W. Bush, praised the way Obama’s communications team was handling things Friday, citing the need to stay out of the way of law enforcement.
“It’s wise for the White House to speak quietly today. When important events are swirling this furiously, the wise course is to let law enforcement officials take the lead and wait for facts to evolve,” he told BuzzFeed. “There is little to nothing the White House can say at this moment that would be conclusive. It’s wise to wait.”
There’s a risk that staying quiet while questions about terrorism swirl could reflect badly on the White House. But Gibbs said that with the manhunt still on, there’s not much chance the White House will face that criticism.
“You want to stay out of the way of anything that might complicate law enforcement so, again, very little upside in doing anything other than staying more quiet at the moment,” he said.