WASHINGTON — President Biden has granted one-fifth as many interviews as Donald Trump, one-eighth as many as Barack Obama and half as many as a nearly assassinated Ronald Reagan did at this point in their presidencies, data shared with The Post reveal as reporters fume about limited access.
Biden’s Thursday night CNN town hall will bring him to 16 interviews total — versus 82 by Trump, 131 by Obama and 32 by Reagan, according to data compiled by presidential historian Martha Kumar.
The lack of interviews comes amid plummeting Biden approval figures following the chaotic US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic — as inflation and a supply-chain crisis hammer average Americans and Biden’s legislative agenda stalls.
“The staff is going way too far to ‘protect’ him. Which raises the issue of, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ Why can’t he do interviews?” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s White House press secretary from 2001-2003.
“I think the pandemic has zero to do with this,” Fleischer said. “It’s what they got away with during the campaign. So they think it worked once and it will work twice.”
Fleischer said he believes Biden is capable of doing interviews but “it makes you wonder if the staff thinks he’s in worse shape than he’s letting on” and that “too much protection raises more questions, particularly for a president about to turn 79.”
The number of first-year interviews varies widely. Reagan’s 32 interviews by Oct. 21, 1981, was the lowest tally of recent presidencies — but Reagan went nearly one month without one as he recovered from a gunshot that punctured a lung, broke a rib and caused internal bleeding.
George W. Bush did 42 interviews in the timeframe, many of them roundtables with groups of journalists. Bill Clinton gave 51 interviews at this point and George HW Bush had done 38.
Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary, said that Biden’s staff “want a scripted presidency” to minimize the chances of gaffes or other distracting commentary.
“They want to minimize the opportunities for him to go off script. And they want as little pushback as possible,” said Spicer, now a TV host for Newsmax.
The president’s sparse availability for one-on-ones has been noted among the press corps, which also is up in arms about restrictions in access to East Room events that sometimes feature Q&As.
White House Correspondents’ Association President Steven Portnoy pressed Biden on the limited East Room access in July at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He later asked press secretary Jen Psaki about the noticeably rare opportunities to question Biden.
“In this month of September, most of the occasions we’ve had [to ask questions of Biden] have been fleeting. In fact, there are some occasions where he’s only taken one question and walked away, and most of those occasions have occurred outside of this building,” Portnoy said on Sept. 22.
“So, when can we expect to have an opportunity to actually ask the president questions in a formal setting?” he asked Psaki at a press briefing.
Psaki told Portnoy, who reports for CBS News Radio, “I don’t know that the format, whether it is multiple shorter Q&As or a longer, formal press conference is at the top of the list of the American public’s concern.”
On Thursday, veteran journalist Brian Karem pressed Psaki’s deputy Karine Jean-Pierre on whether Biden would host a press conference open to the full press. Biden has done four solo press conferences, but only one was at the White House and there was a severe attendance cap.
“He takes questions all the time — all the time,” Jean-Pierre said, repeating an oft-used and vague White House answer to that question.
Like Biden, Trump had given just one White House solo press conference as of late September in his first year, according to Kumar’s data, versus five by Obama, three by George W. Bush, seven by Clinton, 13 by George HW Bush and three by Reagan.
Often, cable news channels don’t broadcast Biden’s usually restrained and dry replies during shorter Q&As in the Oval Office or on the White House lawn — and Biden actually has taken more questions in brief exchanges with reporters than it might seem.
Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project and a professor emerita at Towson University, recently published a report stating that as of late September, Biden had answered at least one question from a reporter 54 percent of days, counting weekends — though there was a downward trend.
Kumar wrote that Biden “has taken questions more often at his events than his predecessors, [but] he spends less time doing so.” For example, these can exchange a single reply, such as affirming his confidence in Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley after reporting on his back-channel calls with China’s military.
By contrast, Trump’s exchanges with reporters generally were lengthy. Gaggles on the White House lawn could feature a dozen or more questions from a diverse group of reporters smooshed together and jostling for his attention — sometimes resulting in journalists getting shoved into bushes or clunked in the head with large cameras.
Biden’s 16 interviews while in office largely were given to TV outlets, but include an an appearance with makeup artist Manny Mua for a YouTube special about COVID-19.
George Stephanopoulos of ABC News scored two Biden interviews and Anderson Cooper of CNN also received two, according to records posted online by FiscalNote’s Factba.se, which publishes transcripts of presidential interviews.
One of Biden’s interviews was an impromptu Jan. 25 Q&A with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins in a hallway of the West Wing — an exchange that record-keepers have included in the tally, despite its novelty. Also included in the 16 Biden interviews is a traditional off-record gathering in April with TV anchors.
ESPN’s Sage Steele, CNN’s Don Lemon, NBC’s Craig Melvin, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and Univision’s Ilia Calderon also interviewed Biden — as did People magazine, Edward-Isaac Dovere of The Altantic and columnist David Brooks of The New York Times.