On the Record: Covering Trump

Five White House correspondents speak candidly about covering the first 100 days of President Donald Trump.

White House correspondents , , , and at the W Hotel Washington DC. (Photo by . Hair and makeup by Carola Myers Makeup Artists.)

The same week White House press secretary Sean Spicer made those controversial comments comparing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler, and after a GIF of Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker raising her eyebrows during that press briefing went viral, Washington Life Magazine gathered Parker and four other White House correspondents for breakfast at the W Hotel Washington DC to reflect on what it has been like to cover President Trump’s first 100 days in office. Among them, CNN’s Jim Acosta, whose network the commander in chief has called “fake news” and who famously battled with Trump during the then-president-elect’s first news conference; Kevin Corke of Fox News, now covering his third administration; Jeff Mason of Reuters, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association; and Politico’s Tara Palmeri, a first-time White House reporter who once covered Donald Trump for the New York Post’s Page Six before moving to Brussels to help launch Politico Europe. Palmeri had recently been publicly attacked by Spicer, who called her “and idiot with no real sources” after she tweeted that the president was being advised to replace his chief of staff Reince Priebus in the wake of the administration’s failed Obamacare repeal effort. The reporters spoke frankly on everything from the impact of social media to their access to the Oval Office, which Mason reported to be “very good,” and the President’s decision to not attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

WASHINGTON LIFE: I want to start with a question directed at Jim. During that first and only news conference Mr. Trump had as president-elect, before the inauguration, he came out essentially declaring war on the news media, particularly singling out CNN and calling you fake news. What was that like?
JIM ACOSTA: I think it was a continuation of his war against the news media. We saw it during the campaign. He referred to us as the disgusting news media, the dishonest new media. We were called liars and crooks and thieves and scum. And so it was not surprising that during that first and only news conference that he had during the transition, he was going to go after us. If you go through the transcript from that news conference it’s rather stunning, one after another attacking the news media, attacking us at CNN, referring to us and what we were reporting as fake news and when the president-elect was going around the room calling on people, my attitude was well, why is he skipping over us? Why is he not calling on us? He’s attacking us but he’s not calling on us. So that why I butted in there and insisted on getting a question and that’s when we had that confrontation.

WL: What was it like to have the president come out and attack the news media like that? He did it consistently during the campaign, but this was a formal news conference as a president-elect.
JEFF MASON: It’s clearly part of Trump as a candidate and President Trump’s style. So I think it has taken some time to get used to that for reporters who didn’t necessarily cover the campaign; but it’s our job as reporters to continue regardless of what kind of criticism or rhetoric is used by the person we’re covering or the people we’re covering.
ASHLEY PARKER: The media is always a really easy and natural punch line for politicians. That was true when I covered Mitt Romney, when I covered Jeb Bush. Democrats do it. Republicans do it. It’s part of the job. But with Trump what was interesting is he sort of codified it or professionalized it. The media would sit in the middle of these huge auditoriums, and he would attack the media and get the crowd in a “call and response”, attacking the media. We basically became, intentionally on his end, part of the Donald Trump show. He would talk about his immigration policy, he would talk about trade, he would talk about making America great again and he would talk about the disgusting, despicable media. It was just a part of a Trump rally in a way I hadn’t seen before from other politicians, Democrats or Republicans.
KEVIN CORKE: I think it’s also fair to say if you did sort of any reasonable deconstruction of the media analysis of his candidacy from start to finish, all the way up until and through election day, it has been adversarial to a degree that I don’t think I’ve seen towards any other candidate in my lifetime. I think because this is a unique environment in a Twitter world, picking a fight with someone who can’t punch you back directly is a win for him. Now, here’s the downside: you pick a fight, they are going to come after you. But for him it works and I think you’re right Ashley I think we’re going to see a lot more of it before we see less.

Washington Life Executive Editor leads a breakfast roundtable with White House correspondents. (Photo: Tony Powell)

WL: Isn’t it true that reporters are being attacked by the public more than ever via social media since the ascension of President Trump? How do you take that criticism?
KEVIN CORKE: I’ve certainly been threatened by people on Twitter and online. The problem is you don’t know if this is just some guy in a basement popping off because he has direct access to someone he sees on television or if it’s someone who really means it. That’s the frightening part about the job in 2017. I never felt that way when I was covering the Bush administration. This is a different landscape.
TARA PALMERI: There’s an actual function on Twitter where you can filter out your tweets so you don’t get any alerts for random bot driven nastiness. Then you can’t even see if someone mentioned you.
KEVIN CORKE: Teach me that filter, please! (laughter)
JIM ACOSTA: I did it myself. It’s a game changer.
KEVIN CORKE: I get hammered. It’s unbelievable.
JIM ACOSTA: Being at a Trump rally is sort of like going through your unfiltered Twitter mentions. (laughter)

WL: Do you feel like you are given enough access at the White House? Are more conservative outlets such as Brietbart given more?
KEVIN CORKE: For me it’s been unique, and not like my first two experiences where we would be considered the opposition. I covered Bush when I was at NBC and they had this jousting back and forth with NBC. I was at Fox covering Obama and they had this jousting with Obama. Well, it’s different now at Fox when I’m covering Trump in the sense there’s better access than I would get if I were at CNN or maybe at some other organization. From a coverage perspective, it’s been easier compared to my last two [tours].
JEFF MASON: Our job at the Correspondents’ Association is to advocate for journalists, for their ability to do their jobs. And that means getting to go into the Oval Office when the president is meeting with a foreign leader, traveling on Air Force One, getting to see bill signings, getting to witness governing. And we’ve had a lot of those opportunities … in many cases more than the Obama administration, to see President Trump making calls and signing bills. I remember, I think it was the first week when the president was making a phone call to Vladimir Putin. And they brought the pool outside the oval office just to see. We didn’t get to go in and listen (laughs.) But just the fact that we were outside and got to take a picture of it and see it happening, that’s what we would call good access… I think it’s important for the public to know that despite some significant tensions, we’ve had for the most part a pretty good ability to see, watch and record this president as he governs.
ASHLEY PARKER: Right, which is wonderful. You always want the chance to hear the president speak, know what he is thinking, be able to ask him questions on the record or off the record. This is also a White House where sometimes you’re there and the press secretary of someone will pull you back and just pull you into the oval office to speak with Trump on the record or on background to get a sense of his thinking. This is the first White House I’ve covered but my sense is that did not happen with Obama.
KEVIN CORKE: It’s extraordinary. I never saw that under Obama or Bush and that should tell you plenty about this idea about a president who is so media savvy that he understands and I think his team is beginning to understand more broadly that it can be a net positive if you can utilize the tool and don’t simply see them as the opposition.
JIM ACOSTA: I’ll be a little bit of a contrarian here though in that. Yes he’s offered a access to us and we’ve had press conferences here and there but don’t forget during the transition – only one news conference – and during the beginning couple of months of this administration he was holding joint news conferences with foreign leaders where he was only taking questions from friendly news media.

WL: What is your relationship like with Sean Spicer, who also routinely reprimands and calls out the media?
JEFF MASON: We’ve worked very hard to build a constructive relationship with this White House and in particular with the press team, and I think we have a constructive relationship. We’re able to go to them with concerns that we have and they come to us with concerns that they have. That does not mean there’s not a great deal of tension there broadly between the Trump White House and the press but we’ve worked really hard to at least have a relationship where we can work through some of those differences.

WL: But the briefings are very contentious. They’ve become must-see TV. People are streaming them live in the office. Is the combativeness for show?
TARA PALMERI: People didn’t used to watch the briefing every single day. How often did you see a briefing with Josh Earnest on TV?
JIM ACOSTA: That was not must-see TV.
TARA PALMERI: Then, people would genuinely ask questions they needed for their stories, but now it’s like “yeah, let’s also throw punches and show how tough we are.”

WL: So, are you saying there’s some showmanship there now that reporters know they are being watched on TV?
TARA PALMERI: I’m sure there is. On the other hand, there is showmanship from Spicer as well. And he knows his boss is watching.
JIM ACOSTA: I think the combativeness that you see from Sean is an extension of the combativeness that you get from the President and I think the President wants that and encourages that. He wants to see it play out in the briefing room. He can’t be out there every day sparring with us, so Sean might as well do that on his behalf. I do think that when you intentionally skip over the Associated Press and Reuters and other wire services and the major networks just to call on conservative news outlets then you are doing a disservice to the American people. In the beginning, Sean was guilty of that. Now, they have adjusted and we are getting more questions to the mainstream news media and I think that’s been a big improvement. But you know the Associated Press is a non-profit cooperative that represents radio stations and newspapers all over America. The fact that the White House secretary was and is still skipping over them during news briefings is kind of outrageous and you just have to say it’s not right.
KEVIN CORKE: Let me add this though: I found Sean to be someone who is genuine. I think the White House wanted a political pugilist. And Sean throws a good jab. I mean, he doesn’t sit there and take the slings and arrows and sort of let you get it all out like Josh for example. Josh was very patient I thought (nods around the table.) He would let you go on. Sean’s not like that. He throws a quick jab and he’s ready to move on. That’s good from our perspective in that I know I’m in for a fight and I’m OK with that. Politically speaking that’s good for the administration to be willing to have your spokesperson be up there and throw some swings and as a journalist, I kind of like it because when I walk into the briefing room every single day.

WL: But what happened to decorum? For example, that whole episode where Sean Spicer told April Ryan to stop shaking her head. That was quite striking.
TARA PALMERI: I’ve been the victim of his personal attacks. Not during the briefing. I don’t get questions. But I think most of us have been the victims of his personal attacks.

WL: Can you give me an example?
TARA PALMERI: It’s been documented. I don’t really want to talk about it per se, but I think that sometimes he just takes it too far. Have any of you in prior administrations been called names by press secretaries on the record?
KEVIN CORKE: They would swear at me off the record.
JIM ACOSTA: Jay [Carney] and Josh [Earnest] would call the booth and let you know what they thought.
KEVIN CORKE: Josh F-bombed me.

WL: But that was not on camera, right?
KEVIN CORKE: Definitely not on camera. You do make a good point about decorum though. I think one of the things that I don’t like as a professional is I want the briefing to be above the fray. I’d like to think of us as the old Senate and not the House. And we’ve kind of lost that. I can’t remember someone doing like this (shakes head back and forth) or having someone else say “don’t shake your head.’ I’ve never seen that.
JIM ACOSTA: But nobody messes with April. Don’t mess with April. Don’t make Holocaust comparisons and don’t mess with April Ryan. Those should be the two rules of the briefing room.
KEVIN CORKE: And there was Ashley’s meme. I made you my screen saver, Ashley!
JIM ACOSTA: Ha-ha…Ashley Parker’s eyebrows!

 

This GIF of Ashley Parker’s reaction to Sean Spicer’s Holocaust comments went viral on Twitter.

WL: I’m glad you brought that up. Ashley, what was it like to have your reaction to Sean Spicer’s Holocaust comments to viral?
ASHLEY PARKER: I still don’t entirely understand the difference between a giff and a meme!
KEVIN CORKE: You were both.
ASHLEY PARKER: Yes, there’s something a little weird about watching your eyebrows go viral, but it goes to the broader point that there is such endless fascination with these press briefings. The camera is trained on Spicer all the time; the camera is trained on the reporters. Obviously, I didn’t realize my face was on camera but I think you’re sort of always aware when you’re in the briefing room that it is live and there are cameras. But I think it just sort of speaks to the public’s fascination in general with everything about this administration.

WL: We’ve also never had a president before who tweets so often and at strange hours – 6am, 11pm, 3am…how does that change how you cover the White House?
ASHLEY PARKER: At the Post we actually have two rotations. We have six reporters on our team. Most White House teams are pretty big, but it doesn’t feel big at all. It feels like we have just the number of people to handle this. But we have one person who’s the traditional duty person, who is in the briefing room, he’s at the White House, he goes to Mar-A-Lago or he goes on a day trip. Then we have this other position that feels very Trump specific that started during the campaign called the hot seat, which is basically the firehouse seat. So basically Donald Trump’s tweets become your alarm clock when you are on the hot seat. You wake up at 6:03 when President Trump wakes up and starts tweeting and you’re sort of handling all of that incoming traffic, all of the tweets, all of the news that gets made on the morning shows. In other administrations they would have “jobs week” or “jobs day”, but with Trump there can be so many different messages and so much crazy news … and that’s kind of the hot seat and that is a direct response to covering a White House where there is so much news incoming.
JIM ACOSTA: Never did I think that we would ever cover a president who tweeted about Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Laughter) I think that sums up where we are right now when it comes to the president and social media. He is this unpredictable guy that is just going to do what he wants. And you know it makes it fun to cover. One of the things that you hear time and again as a reporter is “you guys shouldn’t cover his tweets. Why do you guys cover his tweets? You shouldn’t give so much attention to his tweets. I mean, the tweets are kind of a window into his soul. I can’t imagine not covering them
JEFF MASON: It’s also our responsibility to cover the news and President Trump makes news in those tweets. He tweets about North Korea; he tweets about health care. That is not only a window into his soul but also a window into his thinking, the thinking of the decision maker. It’s our responsibility to report that.
ASHLEY PARKER: There’s a difference between when he was a candidate and he tweeted stuff, you didn’t necessarily need to cover everything. But when he’s a president, not only does he make news, but what he tweets moves markets or sends diplomats scrambling, and that is certainly our job to cover.
TARA PALMERI: He actually kind of uses it as a way to threaten some people who aren’t necessarily willing to go along with him, like the “Freedom Caucus”. They were scared that they were going to be pinpointed in his tweets, that he might encourage people to primary them. It’s a very powerful tool when you have millions of people following you and you are the president of the United States. So, he has some leverage, he uses it. But he’s alienated people with his tweets as well, like the Democrats. Why would they work with him when he’s bashing them on Twitter?

WL: Let’s turn to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. How has the administration saying they will not show up impacted the dinner or the planning for it?
JEFF MASON: It’s impacted it in several different ways. The fact that President Trump decided not to come changes the dinner because he’s the first president not to come in decades. The last one was President Reagan in 1981 when he had been shot so it’s just a different dinner because the president is not present. And when they took the next step and said White House staff and administration officials would not come that changed it more because the members of the Correspondents’ Association, bring officials to that dinner in part to meet and develop sources and to have a chance to talk about the news and to talk about issues and to talk about the government, and we don’t have that opportunity. That said, the dinner is going to be a celebration of the things that we care about the most at the Correspondents’ Association, and that’s the first amendment and the importance of good journalism and the rights and the responsibilities of a free press.
TARA PALMERI: It’s more important now than ever.
JIM ACOSTA: I think they’re going to regret not coming. They’re going to look at this the next day and say, “maybe we made a mistake here. ” Because we’re all going to be there talking about freedom of the press and they are going to be the ones on the sidelines, watching on TV. It’s not like they’re not going to be watching. They’re going to be watching. They could have been in the room. And the President could have been dishing it out while he’s taking it, so I think it’s a missed opportunity for them. I think that’s the way it’s going to come across after it’s over.

 

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