Journalists and news organizations are facing an unprecedented level of hostility from President-elect Donald Trump as he attempts to establish a status quo for his presidency of limited press access and only coverage that he deems “fair.” Trump has dodged questions from media across the political spectrum about his conflicts of interest, and his limited interactions with the media since the election have been used primarily to scold the press for what he perceives to be negative reporting.
So far during his transition period, Trump has violated the norms of any president or president-elect when it comes to his relations with the media. Trump has not allowed a press pool to follow him nor has he held a press conference since he was elected two weeks ago, which, according to Politico, is the “longest” such gap “of any incoming president since at least 1976.” Continuing the trend of showing disdain for the media, on November 21 Trump met with senior executives and reporters for the major TV news networks and reportedly “criticized the executives and correspondents for their election coverage” and “complained about some of the postelection coverage as well.” The president-elect canceled a scheduled meeting with The New York Times in a tweet in which he reportedly lied that the “terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last minute.” The Times’ Eileen Murphy responded, saying they “did not change the rules at all and made no attempt to,” but that the Trump team “tried to yesterday -- asking for only a private meeting and no on-the-record segment”:
We were unaware that the meeting was canceled until we saw the president-elect’s tweet this morning. We did not change the ground rules at all and made no attempt to. They tried to yesterday — asking for only a private meeting and no on-the-record segment, which we refused to agree to. In the end, we concluded with them that we would go back to the original plan of a small off-the-record session and a larger on-the-record session with reporters and columnists.
The meeting was later rescheduled and was slated to have the original conditions as laid out by the Times.
Meanwhile, in just the last week, there have been several stories about the president-elect and his businesses that merited coverage, many of them involving his children, who will be running the Trump Organization during Trump’s presidency and are part of his transition team:
- Trump agreed to settle a fraud lawsuit against his real estate seminar business Trump University for $25 million.
- His daughter Ivanka was present for Trump’s meeting with the prime minister of Japan.
- Ivanka was also included on Trump’s phone call with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, during which Trump reportedly “urged [Macri] to clear the way for a stalled office building development.” The report has since been denied by both Trump and Macri.
- Trump met with his business partners in an Indian luxury apartment complex deal at Trump Tower in New York.
- According to The New York Times, Trump met with Nigel Farage, a British politician who supported Trump during the campaign, and “encouraged Mr. Farage and his entourage to oppose the kind of offshore wind farms that Mr. Trump believes will mar the pristine view from one of his two Scottish golf courses.” Trump has tweeted, “Many people would like to see [Farage] represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States.”
- The Washington Post reported that “about 100 foreign diplomats, from Brazil to Turkey, gathered at the Trump International Hotel this week to sip Trump-branded champagne, dine on sliders and hear a sales pitch about the U.S. president-elect’s newest hotel.” The article noted that venues owned by Trump offer “a chance to curry favor or access with the next president” and quoted “one Middle Eastern diplomat” who said, “Believe me, all the delegations will go there.”
Media -- particularly broadcast news outlets -- failed to rigorously report on Trump’s conflicts of interest before the election. Now, as they scramble to catch up, they have struggled to report on Trump’s business dealings because of his refusal to give them adequate access. While several outlets have reported on his conflicts, it has become increasingly common for American journalists to rely on foreign media for details surrounding Trump’s meetings and calls with foreign leaders. Numerous stories revealing the overlapping nature of Trump’s international business dealings and his status as president-elect have come from foreign news outlets, including the pieces about Trump’s meeting with his Indian business partners and Ivanka’s inclusion in his call with the Argentine president.
As the press struggles to get access and information, Trump and his team are attempting to frame reporting they don’t like as unfair. The Washington Post’s Mark Berman counted 13 public complaints from Trump about the media since the election. And when The New York Times’ Jeremy Peters tried to get information about the legality of Trump’s business dealings from his aide Kellyanne Conway, she responded that he was being “negative.”
I asked @KellyannePolls if Trump was breaking any laws by continuing to conduct business. She said I was being negative.
— Jeremy W. Peters (@jwpetersNYT) November 21, 2016
Holding public officials accountable is a specific job of the media. Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz dismissed concerns that Trump’s press restrictions will continue into his presidency, but Trump’s post-campaign actions show no sign that he is willing to be anything less than hostile to the fourth estate. In the face of Trump’s opacity, journalists need to take a stand before these restrictions and behaviors are codified in his administration.