Inside the Intense, Combative World of Covering the Trump White House

On a chilly and gray Monday in D.C. a few weeks ago, President Trump was sitting on the South Lawn among a group of children during the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, when CNN’s chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, shouted a question at him.

“Mr. President, what about the DACA kids? Should they worry about what is going to happen to them, sir?”

Trump answered, blaming the situation on the Democrats, but Acosta persisted in a follow-up: “Didn’t you kill DACA, sir? Didn’t you kill DACA?”

Trump didn’t respond, but plenty of others did. Conservative sites were indignant, accusing Acosta of behaving “rudely.” Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, called him a “carnival barker,” and Brad Parscale, who is managing Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, tweeted, “Pull his credentials for each incident.”

A few days later, in an interview with Variety, Acosta says, “Yeah, I had the audacity to ask the president a question about policy at the Easter Egg Roll. As a matter of fact, I’d done that last year and nobody took issue with that. It’s part of the environment we’re in right now where every action is going to be put through the conservative meat grinder.”

Just about any correspondent covering the White House today will tell you that the kind of tension and animus that exists between the press corps and the Trump administration is something new and different. Most reporters share a sense that covering Trump is a challenge like no other, at a time when political journalists and the First Amendment are under siege. If it isn’t the president’s frequent outbursts on Twitter, railing against one particular story, news outlet or reporter, it is the unrelenting pace of the breaking-news cycle, much of it due to Trump’s erratic, unconventional behavior and the public interest in his every move.

“There is that natural tension that exists between the press and the people we were covering, but it was never like this,” Acosta says. “We were never called ‘fake news.’ We were never called ‘the enemy of the people,’ and that just created a totally different climate and environment that we are all trying to make sense of and trying to figure out: How do we cover the news in that kind of toxic environment?”

The natural answer is, just the way they have always done it — which is to say, report the news. But that isn’t quite enough with this White House, as reporters are subjected to much greater scrutiny and demands. The stakes are higher and the criticisms more extreme, the attacks often personal.

With the easy accessibility of social media, some political reporters find themselves getting death threats. Acosta says he got “a threat of violence” following the Easter Egg Roll incident. “I probably receive more death threats than I can count. I get them basically once a week.”

April Ryan, a longtime reporter for American Urban Radio Networks and, as a CNN contributor, a recognizable figure in the daily White House briefings, says her experience has been similar. “I actively get death threats just for asking a question,” she says. “I have law enforcement on speed dial.” She recently received a threat after asking White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the president had considered resigning. Sanders dismissed Ryan’s query as “an absolutely ridiculous question.” Ryan has found her contentious exchanges with the administration at times going viral.

“For the last four presidents that I have covered, there’s a thread. There’s always retaliation, but never on this scale,” says Ryan, who is writing a book — “April Ryan Under Fire: On the Frontlines” — on reporting in the Trump era. “If you write on something or report on something they don’t like, of course they are going to give you a call or call your bosses or come to you literally and talk to you and say, ‘It wasn’t that way. You have gotten it wrong.’ This administration, you will get a [Fake News Award], or they will call you out. They will try to disparage your name. It has gone into personal attacks.”

Among those Trump has recently targeted is Chuck Todd, the host of “Meet the Press” and a former White House correspondent.

Todd thinks the president’s insults have had an effect, because “the last time I checked, the press corps is made up of human beings. You are going to defend your work and defend your integrity.”

“There is a danger of getting caught up in it,” Todd says, warning of over-covering a story that strikes a chord within the news business. “I am as concerned about press norms being violated as anyone in the industry, but we have to be careful that we are not ignoring the impact in the rest of the country [of what’s going on in Washington] .”

» Lately, Trump has been tweeting about the “Amazon Washington Post,” flippantly saying that the paper ought to register as a lobbyist for the online retail giant. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Post.

“I joined the Post last year, and I didn’t even get an Amazon Prime subscription,” quips Ashley Parker, White House correspondent for the Post. “There is no connection.”

“You want to be fair. You want to be accurate. You want to add context,” Parker says. “The one thing about this ‘fake news’ environment: I think one of the ways you protect yourself is by doing your job and being extra bulletproof. So if under Obama or under George W. Bush you would triple-check your work, now maybe you quadruple-check it because you don’t want to give them any excuse to call you ‘fake news.’”

“I actively get death threats just for asking a question. I have law enforcement on speed dial.”
April Ryan, American Urban radio networks
Greg Kahn for Variety

Thanks to the intrepid reporting of Parker and the staff of The Washington Post, the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes on April 16 — for their investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and for coverage of the 2017 Senate race in Alabama.

Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News, suggests that there’s nothing new about a president targeting the press. John Adams championed the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, under which reporters were jailed for coverage he didn’t like.

Trump, though, is like no other recent predecessor in his willingness to put his obsessive media consumption and criticism on full display. Last summer, as he was holding a joint press conference with the Romanian president, Trump called on Karl and ribbed him, saying, “Remember how nice you used to be before I ran?”

“My approach was to say, ‘Always fair, Mr. President,’ and to dive right into my question, because you cannot be distracted,” Karl says. The result was Trump responding to Karl that he would be “100%” willing to testify under oath to Special Counsel Robert Mueller to refute fired FBI director James Comey’s claims, a remark that is all the more relevant today given the latest news developments.

White House press officials did not respond to requests for comment. But Sanders, in a recent forum hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Assn., pushed back on the idea that the administration had “declared war on the press.” She said it was “a little bit far-fetched” to “lay the blame” on the president for lack of respect for the media.

“We could not be … bigger advocates of the First Amendment, but I think there is a level of responsibility that comes with being a journalist,” Sanders said. “The majority of the people that show up every day come for the purpose of good reporting, to do their job, but there are a handful of people that I don’t feel are as responsible with that information and can be very inaccurate at times and put out misleading information. I do think that is problematic.”

Trump’s relationship with the media is a bit confounding — different in public than in private. He bashes “fake news” and individual outlets and reporters but has at times called journalists from The New York Times, out of the blue, to clarify a point. He has held only one formal press conference, in February 2017, but takes questions during pool sprays, on Air Force One and on the White House lawn more than previous presidents did.

Parker says that in a “weird way,” there’s a little more transparency in that Trump’s tweets are “direct windows into what the president of the United States is thinking in that moment.” And while she call the press conference “the gold standard” of press access, she adds that Trump is more likely than his predecessors to interact with reporters.

Major Garrett, CBS News’ chief White House correspondent, says Trump cares deeply about the coverage he gets: “As was said by one of his top advisers, ‘Trump hates negative publicity unless he generates it.’”

About six weeks ago, on a Saturday, Trump railed against the mainstream media on Twitter, writing that it had gone “CRAZY.” But that evening, he appeared at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, a white-tie media tradition that dates to the 19th century, where he said to the journalists gathered, “I want to thank the press for all that you do to support and sustain democracy. I mean that.”

The event was not televised, giving it much less of a profile than the April 28 White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner, with its mix of celebrity, biting comedy and First Amendment focus. Trump once again is breaking tradition by not attending, though Sanders will sit at the head table.

Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios, says that he takes Trump’s uses of the term “fake news,” often to dismiss stories he doesn’t like, “with a large grain of salt.”

“I know that he loves the media, in the sense that he needs it. He feeds it. He understands the game,” Swan says, adding, “I’m not going to give him a huge amount of credit for accessibility. He hasn’t committed to a press conference,” with its extended period of questioning, “for a long time. He should.”

“If under Obama or under George W. Bush you would triple-check your work, now maybe you quadruple-check it because you don’t want to give them any excuse to call you ‘fake news.’”
Ashley Parker, The Washington pPst
Greg Kahn for Variety

Karl says that there’s a “fundamental contradiction when it comes to President Trump and his relationship with the news media. He has had relentless attacks on the one hand, and on the other hand has had very positive relationships with reporters covering him.” During the presidential campaign, he says, Trump was “one of the most accessible, media-friendly candidates we had seen,” often holding press availabilities and one-on-one interviews.

That has stopped: The president does “far fewer interviews, and by and large, they are with friendly news outlets,” Karl says.

Trump has made little secret of his affinity for the coverage of Fox News. The administration has hired a handful of the channel’s personalities, including John Bolton, the former United Nations ambassador who is now national security adviser. Another intertwined relationship was recently revealed: Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, advised Fox News host Sean Hannity as a client.

There also are differences in the dynamics of the White House daily briefing. Perhaps no other moment routinely displays the tension between the White House press corps and ⇧he administration than the Q&As with the press secretary, held in a startlingly small space in the West Wing, built atop an indoor pool.

“The press briefings serve a useful purpose,” says Acosta. “We have to ask the leader of the free world, or the representatives of the free world, what the hell is going on. … I want all of that on TV … their evasions, their lies, their falsehoods.”

The briefings are a long-standing tradition, but televising them dates only to the Clinton administration. Then-White House press secretary Mike McCurry allowed the sessions to be televised in the name of opening them up to a wider audience. “It was not an act. It was not entertainment at that time,” Ryan says. “It was about transparency and allowing the American public to see what is going on.”

The briefings took on a life of their own in the early months of the Trump administration, and with Spicer’s confrontations with reporters already the stuff of “Saturday Night Live” skits, they seemed to become part of the infotainment mix of daytime television. Things have settled down somewhat since then and are slightly less dramatic.

Sanders, Parker notes, gets less flustered than her predecessor. Still, she has complained that many cable and broadcast outlets ignore the administration’s policy messaging, such as when a cabinet secretary is brought in to take questions, while focusing on “palace intrigue.”

Edwin Fotheringham for Variety

That isn’t so different from the complaints of previous administrations, but Sanders has suggested that it is a matter of degree. “Ninety percent of the coverage is negative — when you have that much positive news to talk about and only 10% of the time it is being covered, it is hard to argue that there shouldn’t be a level of frustration,” she said at the recent WHCA event.

Among journalists, the complaints center on what they see as evasion of questions. Sanders, who sometimes tinges her answers with sarcasm and her own attacks on the press, has been better at keeping briefings to a daily schedule, but reporters have noted the briefings have become briefer. What used to be an hour of Q&A is often on the order of 20 minutes.

“The info the White House wants [to circulate] gets dismissed in favor of whatever headline of the day there might be,” McCurry says. “However, there is something indispensable about having a senior White House official standing there every day to take questions and be held accountable for producing real answers. The only thing I would change is to take it off live TV and make it more of a working session, with less posturing on both sides of the podium.”

What most concerns many newsrooms, academics and First Amendment advocates isn’t the mechanics of the briefings or the daily accessibility of the president, but the larger picture.

Lynn Sweet, bureau chief and White House correspondent for the Chicago Sun-Times, says that “one of the most frustrating things I have ever faced as a journalist is people question things that are facts. … The unrelenting attacks on the media that happen in almost every speech do have a potentially dangerous and corrosive impact,” she says. “It is something that is a worry. The mission of journalists has not changed, and that is to just do their jobs. We have to be more mindful than ever.”

John Roberts, chief White House correspondent for Fox News, says he doesn’t think the president’s attacks have had an impact on coverage, and may have helped garner additional public attention for those who cover him. “I think to some degree his campaign to discredit the media has backfired, and he has actually sparked more interest in news,” Roberts says.

But Swan points out that “when [Trump] calls everything ‘fake news,’ it is corrosive, but it is corrosive to [the administration] too.” The reporter says it’s particularly a problem when the White House needs to identify something that’s actually wrong and needs to show that the term is not just a catchphrase.

“We have to ask the leader of the free world, or the representatives of the free world, what the hell is going on. … I want all of that on TV … their evasions, their lies, their falsehoods.”
Jim Acosta, CNN
Greg Kahn for Variety

Others note the potential negative impact in other countries, where the United States is looked on as a guidepost for free expression. Some journalists fear that Trump’s attacks at rallies or other events, while perhaps part of his shtick, will be taken much more seriously than intended by someone in the whipped-up crowd. “Fake news, by the president saying this, is not just a cute little statement for some,” says Ryan. “This has tentacles; it is reaching overseas. I am hearing from European leaders who are saying it can really destabilize democracies. They are very concerned.”

The WHCA over the past year created a committee focused on reporter security; it’s designed to be used as a means for members to connect to law enforcement resources. Margaret Talev, president of the association and senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg, says that she doesn’t want to overstate the problem — reporting at the White House is not like covering Mexican drug cartels or the government of the Philippines.

“For the most part it has been just an exacerbation of really inappropriate and occasionally violent wishes on social media,” she says. “But for a few members, there actually have been interactions that I would say are unquestionably threats, where they need to get authorities involved. That is very worrisome and troubling.

“I don’t think it is the administration’s intention to harm reporters physically,” she adds. “Particularly in a crowd setting, the risk of inciting a crowd and things getting out of control is very real. And the United States has really never been a dangerous place to be an American political reporter, and I think that is a threshold I really don’t want us to cross.”

She says that for most reporters, the job is the same — “to cover the policies, the people, the personalities; to cover the moment, the arc of the moment. All of that stuff is the same.”

The intensity is not. Earlier in the Trump administration, Karl recalls taking a day off with his daughter to visit the University of Virginia when news broke that the Obamacare repeal bill was dead in Congress. ABC News sent a live truck to the campus so Karl could do “reports while walking around the campus on a college tour.” He’s learned, no matter where he is going, to bring a jacket for the camera.

Lately, it’s gotten more intense — a recent Friday was indicative: Comey book excerpts in the morning, Michael Cohen revelations in the afternoon, Syrian air strikes in the evening.

“It is intensive, it is exhausting, it is all-consuming, it is certainly stressful,” Karl says. “But this is a great time to be a reporter. We will be looking back at this time years from now and trading stories.”

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