President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team's behavior toward the press in the nine days since he was elected -- including Trump ditching the press to have dinner Tuesday night in New York City -- is renewing concerns from veteran White House reporters about how a Trump administration will deal with the media.
Trump and his allies have waged an unprecedented war on the press since the start of his presidential campaign. The president-elect has repeatedly verbally attacked reporters, canceled media credentials for critical outlets, and suggested as a candidate that he would “open up our libel laws” as president to making suing media easier.
Trump and his team have also drawn criticism for not keeping the media updated on his schedule and whereabouts. Tuesday night, he left Trump Tower unannounced for a surprise dinner at a Manhattan restaurant after reporters covering him were originally told he was in for the night. (There was also confusion among media figures on Wednesday over which city the president-elect was in.)
His actions sparked official criticism from White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) President Jeff Mason, who issued a statement saying that “it is unacceptable for the next president of the United States to travel without a regular pool to record his movements and inform the public about his whereabouts. The White House Correspondents' Association is pleased to hear reassurances by the Trump transition team that it will respect long-held traditions of press access at the White House and support a pool structure. But the time to act on that promise is now.”
Leaders of 18 journalism organizations, including the National Press Club and the American Society of News Editors, offered their own joint letter to Trump urging that press access be improved going forward.
“Being president is an enormous responsibility and working with the White House Correspondents’ Association to ensure journalists' access is one small but important part of that,” the letter said, in part. “We call on you to commit to a protective press pool from now until the final day of your presidency. We respectfully ask you to instill a spirit of openness and transparency in your administration in many ways but first and foremost via the press pool."
Media Matters reached out to several current and former White House correspondents and WHCA presidents who said the dinner stunt is a worrisome sign that Trump may seek to bypass the press once he is in office. They said pool coverage of his activities is vital in case of a crisis or news making events.
They also said Trump’s behavior both this past week and during the campaign -- including attacking critical media outlets and withholding important information -– is a troubling sign for how his administration will approach the media.
“The thing with the dinner is troubling,” said Steve Thomma, politics and government editor at McClatchy and a former White House Correspondents Association president. “It costs the president-elect nothing to have the press follow him in the motorcade. They will not sit at the next table, he will never see them. We are there in case something happens. Even 30 cars back in the motorcade. That is just being vindictive then.”
He also questioned the way some appointments are being revealed.
“As he rolls out the senior officers, [hopefully] he will do it in person and take questions from the press about it, that is what we did with the last two transitions,” Thomma said. “He did not do that with the chief of staff announcement. I remain hopeful, but we have not seen or heard from him in a long time.”
He later added, “It is an understandable fear that he will cut off people and exclude people from Air Force One, those are fears, but there is reason to be optimistic that he will still talk to the broader media.”
George Condon, a National Journal White House correspondent who has covered the White House since 1982 and also served as WHCA president in 1993, said the press access is vital.
“There is a long recognition by multiple White Houses that the public has the right to know what is going on with the president and where he is,” said Condon, noting that if that does not occur, “the public is short-changed and doesn’t know what the president is doing and when he’s doing it. We’re giving him a lot of power and in return you are going to sacrifice a lot of your privacy.”
Another White House correspondent, who requested anonymity, said Trump’s actions so far raise multiple issues.
“There are two levels of concern,” he said. “The first is the rhetoric on the campaign trail, libel laws and banning reporters from campaign events, invective against reporters. The second level is just logistic in setting up White House coverage in the Trump era.”
He said of the dinner escapade: “We are not interested in telling the public whether he uses A1 Steak Sauce, the great concern is the press pool’s ability to relay the president’s location and possibly his message in the event of a national crisis.”
Ed Chen, a former WHCA president in 2009-2010, covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg for 11 years.
According to Chen, “It is really incumbent upon the president-elect and his people, however they feel about the press, to consider starting today having a protective travel pool with him at all times.”
For Steve Scully, C-SPAN senior executive producer and political editor and a former WHCA president in 2006-2007, “the same concerns we had on the campaign trail have been magnified as a president-elect.”
“It goes with the territory, it’s part of the job and what he signed up for,” Scully said about keeping reporters in the loop on Trump’s actions. “He was very anti-press during the campaign. He taunted his supporters to go after the media, the media has always been an easy target and we can handle that. But the standard protocol that has been in place stays in place with President Trump.”
Andy Alexander, a former Washington bureau chief for Cox Media, said the press can fight back.
“What should reporters do?” he asked via email “They need to constantly push back and persistently make their compelling case for why access is critical to informing citizens. Beyond that, the best way to respond is to redouble efforts to produce journalism that is accurate, fair, incisive, independent, ambitious, courageous and in the public interest.”
James Gerstenzang, who covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press from 1977 through 2008, said those who brush off the dinner incident do not understand the need for constant press access.
“It’s not simply thumbing his nose at the press, its thumbing his nose at the public’s right to know,” he said. “This is not the matter of him being entitled to certain personal privacy, it is the public’s right to know about the activities of the person they elected. Everything he does is a reflection of the office and has a potential impact on the people of the country. How do we know that at any moment it isn’t relevant or it is relevant? You need to be there.”
He later added, “The danger goes to the heart of an informed electorate. How can voters be informed if they don’t have access to unbiased accurate information?”