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Ivanka Trump faces skeptical audience in Berlin

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House last month may have been filled with awkward moments, but she left with one key takeaway — identifying the first daughter as her back-channel to President Donald Trump.

The White House was broadly criticized for seating Ivanka Trump, who at the time held no official government position, next to the German leader during a meeting on workforce apprenticeship, essentially elevating a family member with no political experience to the level of Europe’s most important leader.

But for Merkel, a skilled political operator forging relations with the third U.S. president to gain power during her 12 years in office, it was a useful signal of how to work the Trump White House.

She followed up by elevating Ivanka Trump even more, inviting her to speak Tuesday at the W20 Summit in Berlin alongside Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, among others, for a panel on women’s entrepreneurship.

A White House official said the panel will be more in the weeds and wonky than sweeping and symbolic; Ivanka Trump has been prepping for weeks, immersing herself in McKinsey & Co. reports on women in the workforce, rather than searching for soaring language with a speechwriter.

Her inclusion on a panel of world leaders gives as much insight into Merkel’s strategy for diplomacy with the U.S. president — who during the 2016 election called her “insane” and accused her of “ruining” Germany — as it does about the ambitious first daughter. But it provides Trump with her biggest international platform yet.

“The Germans are as bemused as everybody else is, in attempting to navigate how this White House manages its official relationships,” said Constanze Stelzenmuller, an expert on German policy and politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

But knowing how heavily the president relies on his family members as top West Wing advisers, Stelzenmuller said, “It seems obvious that you would engage Ivanka Trump. Merkel is saying, ‘This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and this looks promising.’”

James Jeffrey, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and a former deputy national security adviser and ambassador to Iraq under President Barack Obama, said Merkel is working out how to approach an atypical U.S. leader.

“Merkel is sly as a fox. The unorthodox road to this guy is Ivanka. That’s the person you go to, not the second secretary in the Embassy in Berlin,” Jeffrey said.

In this case, Merkel doesn’t have much choice: Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to Germany (an Obama-era deputy, Kent Logsdon, is filling the role on an interim basis). She will appear on a panel about democracy with Obama next month.

In seeking to reach the president through his daughter, now a special assistant in the White House, Merkel has given Ivanka Trump an opportunity to prove to skeptics at home and abroad that she is the serious, policy-minded, moderating political force she aims to project, not just a softer saleswoman for her father’s ideas.

It’s not a symbolic opportunity to speak truth to power abroad, the way Hillary Clinton did when she traveled to China as first lady in 1995 and proclaimed, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” Instead, Trump’s trip is seen here as an opportunity to ease fears among Europeans about the new U.S. administration.

The visit is particularly fraught as Europe reels from Sunday’s vote in France. Emmanuel Macron, a novice political centrist, and far-right populist Marine Le Pen, who has proposed calling a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union, qualified for a run-off to decide the next president.

In Berlin, Trump faces a skeptical audience, one that views the new presidency with fear and suspicion and is unsure of what to make of the first daughter.

“What does a daughter with no political experience have to do in the White House?” said Andrea Seibel, an opinion editor at Die Welt, the influential conservative-leaning Berlin daily, where editors huddling in the newsroom Monday afternoon planned to give front-page coverage to the visit.

“We have family clan experiences in autocracies,” Seibel said. “Ivanka Trump isn’t elected, she is a daughter. She didn’t say anything in the elections when he was saying nasty things about women and migrants. She is his voice, but somehow she has a nicer face.”

The coverage of Ivanka Trump in the German media in the days leading up to her speech was similar to that at home, where she has been criticized on late night programs like “Saturday Night Live” for being “complicit” in her father’s agenda.

The front page of one daily newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, featured a photograph of Ivanka Trump under the headline “First Flusterin,” or “the first whisperer.” The story questioned whether the first daughter would push her father toward a moderate course or act as a “loyal accomplice.”

And abroad as at home, the interest level in all things Trump is high. About 400 reporters are expected to cover the women’s conference at the Intercontinental Berlin, CNN reported.

Merkel isn’t the first world leader to try and influence the president through the family member he has made clear is one of his most trusted advisers. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March invited Ivanka Trump to attend the Broadway show “Come From Away” with him, a play whose central theme is about embracing foreigners.

And a White House official said Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, and Queen Maxima have both reached out with requests for public events with Ivanka Trump. (Both are participants in Tuesday’s W20 summit.)

Merkel laid the groundwork for her own outreach in February, when she approached Vice President Mike Pence at a Munich security conference.

When she came to Washington in March, she told Pence she wanted to participate in a roundtable on apprenticeship, according to a person familiar with Merkel’s thinking and a White House official. Merkel hoped to discuss how American and German private sector companies could better train workers.

One of her aims in picking that issue, according to the person familiar with her thinking, was to engage the first daughter, who has expressed interest in working with CEOs to improve conditions for women in the workforce. Appealing to Ivanka Trump was an easier target for Merkel than the president’s top political adviser, Steve Bannon, an anti-globalist who supported last year’s Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and is critical of the EU.

In Berlin Tuesday, the White House official said, Trump plans to stick to the basics: Highlighting the role of women in the global economy and discussing the importance of access to capital for female entrepreneurs. It’s an issue she has studied since before the campaign and one that she has focused on since moving to Washington, where she has been on a listening tour of sorts with CEOs such as Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and General Motors’ Mary Barra.

After the conference, Trump, a converted Orthodox Jew, is scheduled to tour manufacturing company Siemens and visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin’s Holocaust memorial.

She will be accompanied by three White House aides: Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser and senior economic counselor; communications adviser Hope Hicks; and her newly named chief of staff, Julie Radford.

Even with Europe’s future in turmoil, Ivanka Trump’s visit dominated front pages in Berlin. “Who knows,” said Oliver Michalsky, deputy editor-in-chief of Die Welt. “Maybe she’ll become America’s first female president.”

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Trump’s prisoner dilemma

President Donald Trump may soon find out whether his chest-thumping “America first” policy can bring some desperate Americans back home.

The president is coming under increasing pressure from relatives of Americans imprisoned by foreign governments to secure their release. Some are pushing his administration to use a Tuesday meeting about the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna to persuade Tehran to release Americans in its custody, despite Trump’s vehement criticism of the Islamic Republic.

Just days ago, Trump was beaming after helping free an American held prisoner in Egypt, a country he’s been heavily courting. But then some ominous news landed over the weekend: another U.S. citizen had been detained, this time in North Korea, which Trump has singled out as a threat.

In all, the developments are a vivid reminder of the human stakes involved as the new Republican president calibrates his approach to foreign policy. Trump’s decision on which countries to engage, which to isolate, and when to seek a middle ground could dramatically affect the fate of Americans imprisoned abroad on what their supporters insist are baseless charges.

“These circumstances are cases that are incredibly complex, challenging and for which failure is not an option,” said Jared Genser, a lawyer trying to help free American citizens Baquer and Siamak Namazi, a father and son held in Iran.

Trump scored an early success in securing the release of American charity worker Aya Hijazi, who was acquitted by an Egyptian court of child abuse and human trafficking charges after around three years in custody. But her case may prove a relatively easy one given Trump’s eagerness to mend U.S.-Egypt ties, which frayed under former President Barack Obama.

Trump views Egypt as a critical counter-terrorism ally, and he has been willing to set aside concerns about its human rights record to earn the good graces of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. In early April, Trump hosted Sisi at the White House, a huge boost for an Arab leader largely shunned by Obama. White House officials have said that Trump raised Hijazi’s case with the Egyptian leader, though it was not clear exactly when.

But several Americans detained overseas are in countries that the Trump administration has been far less friendly toward, including Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. While Obama looked for ways to engage Iran, took a mixed approach toward Venezuela, and largely gave up on publicly reaching out to North Korea, Trump has been notably harsher toward those three countries. In particular, he’s targeted North Korea over its nuclear ambitions and warned Iran to stop meddling outside its borders.

Some former U.S. officials say the more strident tone under Trump may make some of the targeted countries less inclined to release the Americans.

“Just generally, if the relationship is very complicated, like with Venezuela and North Korea, and there’s a lot of hostility, it’s not helpful when you’re negotiating a prisoner release,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has been trying to help Americans detained in those two countries.

At the same time, if Trump stays consistently tough toward those countries, they may calculate that imprisoning Americans is not a useful way to gain leverage over the United States. Some may even choose to release the Americans as a gesture aimed at lowering tensions, Richardson added.

“What these prisoner releases can do, and what I have urged in the past, is that they can be a pathway to a dialogue between the two hostile countries,” said Richardson, a Democrat who also served as ambassador to the United Nations under the Clinton administration.

Richard Boucher, a former top U.S. diplomat who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, said the trick is to keep the release of the Americans a priority but not hinge other key foreign policy objectives on their freedom.

“Most people in the policy process would say we can’t let some American – an innocent missionary or whoever is detained – you can’t let their presence affect our national goals,” Boucher said. “Otherwise your policy becomes hostage.”

Asked whether the administration’s tough rhetoric could undermine its efforts to free U.S. citizens, the State Department said in a statement: “The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the State Department. Every case is different and handled individually.”

It’s not clear how many Americans are imprisoned by foreign governments or how many of them are being held for politically motivated reasons. The State Department won’t release such information, citing privacy concerns. The cases also differ from those of Americans held hostage by terrorist groups or other non-state actors. The relatives of some imprisoned Americans never publicize their cases, hoping to quietly negotiate their release.

Since Trump’s inauguration, however, some families have become more vocal than in the past. They hope the new U.S. president will live up to campaign declarations that he won’t stand for such treatment of American citizens.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier went on Fox News earlier this month to plead with the new administration to bring home their son, Otto, who was sentenced in 2016 to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. The University of Virginia student reportedly confessed to trying to take a propaganda banner while visiting North Korea.

“President Trump, I ask you, bring my son home. You can make a difference here,” Fred Warmbier said in the TV appearance.

But the Warmbiers’ request came as tensions were rising between the Trump administration and North Korea. Trump aides publicly would not rule out using military force to destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear program, and North Korea suggested it would react in kind. Last weekend, in a show of defiance, North Korea tried to test a missile, but the projectile exploded upon launch.

On Saturday, Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, was stopped by North Korean authorities as he was trying to fly out of Pyongyang, The Associated Press reported.

Kim, a college professor, is the third American known to be in North Korean custody. Aside from Otto Warmbier, businessman Kim Dong Chul is being held, sentenced to several years of hard labor on accusations of spying.

North Korea has freed Americans in its custody before, though usually after a gesture by the United States. In 2014, under Obama, Pyongyang freed Matthew Todd Miller and Kenneth Bae after then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited North Korea on a secret trip.

Richardson said he’s been trying to persuade the North Korean government to let him visit for a discussion on how to release the Americans, and that they “haven’t said no” yet. He urged the Trump administration to “cool the bluster, tone down the rhetoric” and seek potential third-party channels, such as the Chinese, to lean on North Korea to free the Americans.

The lengthy talks with Iran that led to the nuclear deal gave the Obama administration a rare opening with a long-standing nemesis to negotiate the release of several Americans.

In January 2016, Iran agreed to free five Americans during the same weekend in which the nuclear deal was officially implemented. The release of four of the Americans was part of a deal that saw the U.S. drop charges or arrest warrants for a total of 21 people suspected of offenses including illegal arms importation. Iran and the U.S. also settled a separate, decades-old legal dispute that led the U.S. to pay Iran $1.7 billion. The nuclear deal’s critics alleged that was essentially a ransom for the American prisoners.

Iran refused to free at least one American in its custody at the time: businessman Siamak Namazi, who is now 45. Soon afterward, Iran also detained Siamak’s father, Baquer Namazi, an 80-year-old former United Nations official. Aside from the Namazis, at least two other Americans are believed to now be in Iranian custody, as well as two U.S. green-card holders. Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson also went missing in Iran 10 years ago.

Genser, the lawyer working on the Namazi case, said the pair’s relatives hope that Trump’s deputies will raise the matter with Iranian officials Tuesday, when they meet in Vienna to discuss the status of the nuclear deal.

“We understand the Namazi cases will be raised by the United States in its first bilateral discussions with Iran since President Trump’s inauguration,” Genser said. “While this will be a critical step forward, U.S. officials must then engage aggressively to secure their release as both are in rapidly deteriorating health.”

Tuesday’s meeting, however, comes as the Trump administration has escalated its rhetoric against Iran. Last week, shortly after certifying to Congress that Iran was adhering to the nuclear deal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a press conference to pillory Iran for a long list of reasons. Tillerson even blasted the nuclear agreement itself, insisting it would not curb Tehran’s long-term nuclear ambitions.

Asked whether Trump’s rhetoric hurts the Namazis’ prospects of getting freed, Genser said it’s hard to predict because so many factors are in play. “It’s very difficult to understand how governments that are hostile to the United States think about dealing with any president, let alone this one,” he said.

Trump also has taken a tough stance toward Venezuela, which has detained 25-year-old U.S. citizen Josh Holt since last June.

Holt went to Venezuela last year to marry a woman he’d met online. He and his new wife were were picked up by Venezuelan officials who allege he was stockpiling weapons. The officials also cast him as part of a grander U.S. plot to undermine the rule of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which has been marked by economic turmoil leading to shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.

In February, the Trump administration leveled sanctions against a Venezuelan vice president over allegations that he’s a drug trafficker. Later that month, the U.S. president met with the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, a jailed Venezuelan opposition leader.

Shortly after Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20, Josh Holt’s mother, Laurie, released a video asking the new president to do more to help free her son. She is in Washington this week to meet with lawmakers and members of the administration about her son’s case.

She believes that Venezuela, which still retains important trade links to the United States and which indirectly donated $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration, will be more responsive to tough talk than sweet talk.

“I voted for Trump because I felt like the way he goes about things, that it would, maybe, make Venezuela be afraid because they don’t know what he’s going to do,” Laurie Holt said in an interview. “Something has to give somewhere.”

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Decision time for GOP: Trump’s ire or government shutdown

Republicans are caught in one of their biggest dilemmas of the year: Whether to cross President Donald Trump and ignore his demand for border wall funding or join him and invite a government shutdown while the GOP controls all of Washington.

With four days before government funding expires, the president and his administration have stepped up their insistence that a must-pass spending bill include initial funding for his U.S.-Mexico border wall — surprising Republican leaders who had been quietly moving forward with Democrats on legislation without money for the wall.

Senate Republican leaders met for nearly an hour on Monday evening to go over their plight. They emerged “optimistic” about getting a deal with Democrats, said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). But it might require delivering Trump some bad news.

One Republican senator said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not indicated whether he supports Trump’s request for wall money. But the senator, who would only speak anonymously, said the preference of most GOP leaders is to deliver Trump only border technology and staffing and leave the fight for “new money on a new wall for later.”

“I think that’s where we are,” the senator said.

Still, Trump’s position is receiving some rhetorical support on Capitol Hill. As they returned Monday from a two-week recess, Senate Republicans bashed Democrats for vowing not to vote for any bill funding the wall despite a number of Democratic senators who voted to authorize a border fence in 2006.

“They ought to quit playing games. They ought to provide for at least this down payment to continue completing work that they’ve already voted for,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Seems to be kind of a no-brainer.”

Replied Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Senate Democrat: “We are not going to accept border wall money. We’re just not.”

Trump’s insistence on funding for the wall, pushed by top administration officials over the weekend and reiterated Monday by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, has derailed bipartisan talks on a large spending package to fund the government through September. However, Trump signaled some flexibility on Monday.

Meanwhile, Republicans blame Democrats for complicating negotiations by making new demands on providing permanent Obamacare subsidies for low-income people. The dispute may require Congress to pass a short-term funding bill to avoid a shutdown on Friday night; Blunt said that decision would be made by the end of Tuesday.

Democrats laid out a hard line against the border wall more than a month ago, placing Republicans in the uncomfortable political position of picking between a potentially disastrous shutdown fight or leaving Trump’s priorities behind. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the border wall’s cost “staggering” and said the money would be better spent elsewhere, vowing yet again to tank any spending bill that includes border wall money.

Even conservative Democrats appear opposed to Trump’s demands.

“If the president is able to get the Mexicans to pay for it, God bless him. I don’t think it should be a high priority for us to pay for it right now with all the different demands we have,” said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, perhaps the closest congressional Democrat to Trump.

Republicans had quietly signaled for weeks that they preferred to skirt a battle over the $1.4 billion in requested wall funding — but now Trump’s tweetstorms about the wall and his emissaries’ public statements have made it impossible to ignore.

“If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be! #BuildTheWall,” Trump tweeted on Monday. However, he later told conservative journalists Monday that he could instead fight for wall money in September, an administration official confirmed.

It’s still not clear how hard congressional Republicans are willing to fight for wall funding, especially as lawmakers in both parties are willing to support more funding for border security that’s not explicitly for a wall on the Mexican border. Such a move would allow both parties to save face but would still amount to a major letdown for Trump as he approaches his 100th day in office on Saturday.

“One way or the other, I assume there will be security dollars in the budget. The question is whether they are specifically for a wall or something else,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican in the chamber. Asked whether he supports putting wall funding in the spending bill, he said: “If we could get that, then yeah.”

Adding to the confusion is Trump’s idea of cutting off the Obamacare subsidies if Democrats don’t fund the border wall. About $7 billion is needed to provide low-income people with insurance assistance; seeking leverage, Trump has suggested he could cut off the payments, which would cripple the 2010 health care law as well as the individual insurance market.

Some Democrats, particularly House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are pushing for a concession from Republicans for a permanent fix on the subsidies, though Democrats are far likelier to receive a temporary patch given the GOP’s opposition to propping up Obamacare. Democrats made Republicans an offer on the matter on Sunday, but a Democratic aide said Republicans have not responded.

And on Monday, some Republicans seemed more enamored with fighting for the border wall on the spending bill and leaving the Obamacare fight to a more comprehensive discussion about replacing the law. The House could vote in the coming days on a repeal-and-replace bill.

The wall is “part of the president’s priority, and we’re talking about .14 percent of discretionary spending,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). The Obamacare subsidies, he said, should be “resolved, frankly, in the overall repeal-and-replace” discussion.

Given the state of negotiations and high political stakes, some Republican allies are hoping that Congress will punt the budget fight to the fall and regroup.

Tim Phillips, president of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said his organization wants House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and McConnell to drop negotiations with Democrats on a larger deal and pass a “continuing resolution” to fund the government at current spending levels through the end of September. He fears that if Democrats and Republicans resolve their differences, the end result will be increased spending rather than the fiscal restraint long vowed by the GOP.

“We want a clean CR that sticks to the discretionary spending caps that too often in the past have been ignored,” Phillips said. “We’re not for a shutdown.”

Josh Dawsey, Seung Min Kim, John Bresnahan, Rachael Bade and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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FCC's Pai to describe net neutrality rollback plans this week

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai intends to launch his reworking of the Obama-era net neutrality rules, according to sources familiar with the plan, setting up a showdown on an issue that has long pitted tech companies against internet providers.

In a speech in Washington on Wednesday, Pai plans to discuss his vision for net neutrality — keeping open internet principles but getting rid of the utility-style regulatory framework approved by the agency’s previous Democratic majority. And he could circulate a notice of proposed rulemaking on the plan to his fellow commissioners on Thursday, sources said. That would set up a vote on the issue at the FCC’s May 18 meeting. One industry source said the chairman’s goal is to finish the proceeding by this fall.

The FCC’s net neutrality rules generally require that internet service providers treat web traffic equally and prohibit providers from blocking or slowing traffic to certain websites.

Pai’s net neutrality plan will land in the midst of a maelstrom of a week as Congress buckles in to try to keep the federal government from shutting down while also wrangles over tax reform and repealing Obamacare.

Some sources say his approach this week could simply be to propose doing away with the FCC’s regulatory classification of internet service providers and solicit comments on how the agency can keep the net neutrality principles without that classification.

People familiar with Pai’s plans spoke anonymously to discuss his actions before they are announced.

Pai has said he supports net neutrality principles, but opposes the regulatory underpinnings of the 2015 Open Internet Order, which gave the FCC greater authority to police the actions of broadband providers by using utility-style regulation. Supporters say the framework is necessary for the agency to have sufficient oversight over internet service providers, but Pai and telecom industry critics describe it as a heavy-handed power grab that has deterred investment.

Just two years ago, the FCC’s then-Democratic majority voted along party lines to approve the Open Internet rules after a year of noisy debate that sparked millions of public comments to the agency. The rules, backed by President Barack Obama, later survived a legal challenge from AT&T and telecom trade groups when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the order last June in a 2-1 decision.

It’s not clear how Pai will preserve net neutrality rules of not blocking or slowing web traffic while doing away with the regulatory structure the FCC used to support the rules.

Earlier this month, he floated a proposal in a meeting with telecom trade groups that would see the agency cede internet oversight to the Federal Trade Commission, with broadband providers voluntarily committing to adhere to net neutrality principles.

For FCC watchers, Pai’s moves on net neutrality will not come as a surprise. Pai, who voted against the 2015 rules as a Republican commissioner, has already pulled back agency actions on zero-rating — allowing internet providers to favor some streaming video or other web content — and data security that were built off of the net neutrality rules.

Changing net neutrality to his liking is the latest regulatory rollback for Pai, who has wasted no time talking with companies and lawmakers to advance his agenda at the FCC.

His stab at new net neutrality rules will pit powerful interests against other powerful interests given that tech companies such as Google and Netflix have supported the rules now in place while internet providers like Comcast and AT&T are more likely to get behind Pai’s changes.

Left-leaning consumer groups and Democrats have already promised a fierce fight to preserve the existing framework.

In recent weeks, Pai has been meeting with telecom trade groups and tech industry executives to discuss the future of net neutrality. He said he solicited ideas on online consumer protections during a Silicon Valley trip last week that included conversations with Facebook, Cisco, Intel and Oracle executives.

Asked for comment, the FCC confirmed Pai is giving a speech Wednesday but declined to provide details.

Ashley Gold and Li Zhou contributed to this report.

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Verge Magazine Interviews Underground Writer

Verge Magazine has an intriguing interview with underground artist and writer Darcie Wilder on its website. Wilder recently published a novel called “Literally Show Me a Healthy Person,” and it’s getting strong reviews although many critics indicate that they’re a little bit taken aback by some of the imagery and content. The novel is composed of a series of autobiographical vignettes – some as short as a sentence – about everything from wearing celebrity masks to staring at the wall out of boredom. Separately they seem disjointed, but together they form a portrait of the artist.

 

Wilder is known for her Twitter posts, and Verge asked her if she thought that readers who enjoyed her tweets would be able to get into her novel. She responded that they should be able to but that Twitter is a very different medium than the novel. For starters, she said, in a Tweet thoughts must be self-contained within 140 characters, but in a novel multiple sentences interact with one another. Wilder, who uses Twitter often, explained that it has caused her to sometimes think in term of short statements and that she’s not sure whether this is a good or bad thing.

 

Because Wilder includes many pop culture references in her writing, she noted that her work runs the risk of one day seeming dated, but she stressed that she tries to make her statements and art timeless. She mentioned that she loves many artists from the 90’s and that their work speaks to her now and not just in the context of the era it was created. Wilder explained that she started the book in 2012 and that it went through multiple revisions. She used the word “reshuffling” to describe her creative process.

 

Personally, I thought that Wilder came across as a gifted and cutting-edge artist in this interview. She mentioned working on films in the future, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of that.

 

Trump’s Fake War on the Fake News

Seven days before Donald Trump took office, the inauguration festivities got off to a low-key start inside a modest conference room at the Capitol Hill offices of the American Trucking Association. There, a hundred-odd familiar faces from the Washington set gathered to fête one of their own, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

The party spilled out into the hallway as entrepreneur Susanna Quinn, ubiquitous Republican consultant Ron Bonjean and Spicer’s wife, Rebecca, a staffer at the National Beer Wholesalers Association, rubbed shoulders with CBS’ White House correspondent Major Garrett and its political editor Steve Chaggaris, Time’s Zeke Miller and several journalists from CNN, including Washington bureau chief Sam Feist. Spicer arrived late, but in good spirits, and after 20 minutes of schmoozing he strode to the front of the room to deliver brief remarks.

In public, Trump’s team and the press had been engaged in bitter clashes for months. Just two days earlier, during a contentious transition-team news conference, Spicer had threatened to eject CNN’s Jim Acosta from Trump Tower. But in the end, ratings were up and Trump was president-elect.

The overlit conference room was a safe space, not a war zone. Spicer made light of the Acosta incident, jokingly threatening to eject Feist from the room. Feist took Spicer’s teasing in stride, briefly turning as if to make for the exit, and the room laughed along. Spicer cracked that he looked forward to serving in his new post for “eight years,” an unheard-of tenure in the notoriously trying job of White House press secretary. This prompted more knowing laughter. One heckler shouted, “Tell the truth!”—an arch reference to the angry chant Trump supporters had been raining down on reporters at campaign rallies.

Then, a week later, a grim-faced Spicer took to the podium in the White House briefing room for the first time and angrily denounced the news media’s reporting of Trump’s inauguration crowd, uttering several easily debunked falsehoods. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period,” he said, flanked by twin monitors displaying a deceptively flattering overhead photo of the crowd on the National Mall—instantly becoming a national punchline on Twitter and late-night television. He did not take questions, let alone make jokes.

“It was a bit of a shocker,” said one veteran Washington journalist who had attended Spicer’s party. “Especially given what had happened that night at the get-together.”

***

In societies around the world, anthropologists have observed a phenomenon called “ritualized warfare,” a sort of pantomime of battle most famously observed among the Dani people of Papua New Guinea, who would regularly line up in formation to shout insults and shoot arrows at warriors from rival villages with no decisive outcome. The practice results in a lot of noise and relatively little bloodshed, allowing both sides to advertise their courage and vent emotion while avoiding catastrophic loss of human life.

The practice might look familiar to the new president. On the campaign trail, Trump called the press “dishonest” and “scum.” He defended Russian strongman Vladimir Putin against charges of murdering journalists and vowed to somehow “open up our libel laws” to weaken the First Amendment. Since taking office, he has dismissed unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and described the mainstream media as “the enemy of the American people.” And there’s been a string of symbolic, almost gratuitous little slaps: He not only rejected the traditional invitation to the White House Correspondents Association dinner, but announced the Saturday beforehand that he’d be holding a rally the same night, meaning some reporters will have to skip their own professional event to cover his. Not since Richard Nixon has an American president been so hostile to the press—and Nixon largely limited his rants against the media to private venting with his aides.

But behind that theatrical assault, the Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press. We interviewed more than three dozen members of the White House press corps, along with White House staff and outside allies, about the first whirlwind weeks of Trump’s presidency. Rather than a historically toxic relationship, they described a historic gap between the public perception and the private reality.

When he is not fulminating on stage or on Twitter, the president himself has mustered a number of cordial interactions with reporters since taking office, often showing them more courtesy than he grants his own staff. When White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is not labeling the media “the opposition party,” he can be found sending crush notes to journalists to let them know they’ve nailed a story. And when Spicer is not popping off from his podium, he is often busy maintaining old relationships with journalists and building new ones. (Spicer did not respond to requests for an interview for this article or to a long list of questions.)

As much as West Wing staffers might fantasize about breaking the backs of the mainstream media, they are too divided and too obsessed with their own images to do so. And for all the frustration of covering an administration with a shaky grasp on the truth and a boss whose whims can shift from one moment to the next, reporters have feasted on the conflict and chaos. The White House is a viper’s nest of intrigue and suspicion, a place where aides wage their daily battles via the press and eagerly devour the resulting coverage each morning. The great secret of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is that Trump’s war on the media is a phony one, a reality show that keeps his supporters fired up and distracted while he woos the constituency that really matters to him: journalists.

“He built his career by being media-friendly. The last 18 months have been something of an aberration in his approach,” said Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a Trump confidant who has known the president for 20 years. “I’ve always said he’s just creating a negotiating position by calling the press the enemy of the people. I don’t think he believes that deep down.”

***

The main stage for the Trump team’s daily skirmish with reporters is the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, a cramped space that was converted from a swimming pool for its present purpose by Nixon in 1970 and renamed for Ronald Reagan’s press secretary in 2000, years after he was shot by would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley. In the 1990s, first lady Hillary Clinton proposed reopening the pool—which until recently could be reached from a trap door in the briefing room floor—and moving the press to a subterranean space under the West Wing driveway. The idea was dropped, but in 2006, the room was closed for a major renovation, reopening the following year.

As the room stands now, behind the seats for the press and just in front of the camera risers, a small ledge juts down from the ceiling. The ledge offers a sort of shelf visible only to the camera operators and is lined with knickknacks: a Presidente beer-branded travel thermos; a carved wooden tribal mask; a metallic statuette of the Twin Towers; a Buck Showalter bobblehead; a Hawaii license plate that reads “OBAMA”; the green humanoid Gumby and his equine sidekick Pokey; two magazine covers with Obama’s face on them; a green toy football; a green plastic army figurine; some small Obama figurines and a sticker that says “HOME TEAM.” The import of this display is clear: The media live here. Everyone else is just visiting.

In his notorious first appearance before the press, Spicer appeared determined to mark his territory. Zeke Miller, a Time reporter and a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, mistakenly included in the first pool report from Trump’s Oval Office that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the room. The error was quickly corrected, but not before it set off a furor online. Spicer excoriated Miller from the podium, calling the mistake “deliberately false reporting.” Trump could not let the bust incident go, rehashing it at a Black History Month luncheon two weeks later and fuming in private.

After bragging about the number of Time covers he has appeared on, Trump also dwelled on the incident during a speech at CIA headquarters. “So Zeke, Zeke from Time magazine, writes a story about ‘I took down.’ I would never do that because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Trump at Langley. “But this is how dishonest the media is.”

But as with other public spats in the weeks that followed, the White House’s outrage toward Time would quickly subside and give way to other concerns: Namely, which members of the administration would be included on Time’s 100 most influential people list in April, and who would write their tributes? The press office and other corners of the West Wing expressed concerns about what would happen if Bannon, Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner or senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway were included on the list, but chief of staff Reince Priebus or Vice President Mike Pence were not. Far from dismissing the list as “fake news,” White House officials were concerned that the president would take it as a blueprint for governing, and give short shrift going forward to top aides who did not make the cut.

In the meantime, Trump’s staff has had its hands full just finding its footing. Every new administration takes time adjusting to life in the White House, about as high-pressure a work environment as they come. But after an outsider campaign that alienated much of the Republican operative class, the new president’s West Wing staff is greener than most, and the logistical snafus began as soon as Trump was elected, when a shell-shocked campaign team was slow to make accommodations for the transition press pool, the system by which a small, rotating group of journalists tracks every doing of the president-elect on behalf of the entire press corps.

He’s just creating a negotiating position by calling the press the enemy. … I don’t think he believes that deep down.”

In the early days of the administration, journalists have been piqued by some of the more quotidian concerns of their profession: unanswered emails, delays in obtaining the “hard passes” that ensure convenient access to the White House grounds and the staff’s initial inability to operate the in-house speaker system that notifies journalists in their workspaces about impending briefings.

The Monday after the inauguration, a group of some 30 reporters stood at their usual entrance to the White House grounds on Pennsylvania Avenue, waiting to file into the briefing room. But the minder sent by the new administration to let them in did not know where the room was. So the minder turned to Kaitlan Collins, the Daily Caller’s 25-year-old correspondent, who had the advantage of having covered the final few weeks of the Obama administration. Collins led the Trump staffer across the grounds to the briefing room, a pack of reporters in tow.

Since then, the White House press shop has continued to give the impression that it is a little lost. Official press releases have been riddled with typos and factual errors. In a hallway outside the briefing room, staffers hung a photo of Trump’s inauguration crowds with an inscription that dated the event to January 21, which was in fact the day after Trump’s inauguration, when hundreds of thousands of women marched on the mall in protest of his presidency. A list published by the White House of “under-reported” terror attacks misspelled “attacker” as “attaker” 27 times. In March, the press office published a statement ringing in the Iranian New Year that cited an apocryphal quote from Cyrus the Great. And a White House email newsletter touting support for Trump’s budget linked to a satirical Washington Post article that mocked the budget, suggesting it would kill children.

Out loud, Trump has quoted an “Irish proverb” at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration that actually came from an amateur poem posted online by a Nigerian banker. Spicer has mistakenly accused Iran of attacking an American vessel, before being corrected by a reporter, and repeatedly referred to a nonexistent terror attack in Atlanta, when he apparently meant Orlando. Conway, for her part, repeatedly lamented a nonexistent “massacre” by two Iraqi refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky, amid a ham-handed effort to defend the president’s travel ban.

These sorts of basic slip-ups leave White House correspondents skeptical that the administration has any master plan to neuter the press. “Mostly they’re just reactive and incompetent,” said one. “They don’t have time, man. They don’t have time. Their ass is on fire all day, every day. These are not evil geniuses. … It’s not some sort of wonderful, malevolent plot to destroy the media. These people are in a 24-7 state of panic.”

Indeed, reporters have found press office staffers are out of the loop and often know less about what’s happening inside the building than they do. Sometimes, this dynamic spills out into public view. In February, CBS’ Major Garrett reported that Philip Bilden, Trump’s pick for Navy secretary, was likely to withdraw his nomination. Spicer immediately responded to the story on Twitter, saying it was wrong and that Bilden was “100% commited [sic] to being the next SECNAV.” Bilden withdrew eight days later.

They will screw with you,” one correspondent was told. “They will feed you things that are not true.”

“It may or may not persist, but I would be willing to give this administration some time to sort that out,” Garrett said of the press shop’s woes, “because many people arrived with no particular history or professional comprehension of the things they needed to sort out in terms of information flow.”

On top of the sloppiness, there is the lying. One veteran White House correspondent said he was warned by a transition official to be wary of good color emanating from the Trump camp on background. “They will screw with you,” the correspondent was told. “They will feed you things that are not true.”

Bannon, it is worth noting, is a devoted reader of the “neoreactionary” internet philosopher Curtis Yarvin, an advocate of the strategic benefits of spreading misinformation. But two people close to the administration say that White House staffers do much of their lying for sport, rather than to further any larger agenda.

“They all lie,” said a conservative journalist with close ties to the West Wing, who described an informal contest to smuggle the biggest whoppers into print. “It’s a game to them.”

A conservative activist close to the administration said a member of the White House communications team recently divulged the same to him over drinks. According to the activist, the staffer described the attitude inside the press shop toward lying to reporters as: “They’ll print what they want anyways, so we may as well have fun.”

All of this has combined to make the press office useless in the eyes of much of the press. “I don’t trust anything I’m told by a comms person,” said one correspondent. “If they’re telling me something’s wrong, I’m going to keep checking.”

A Trump White House official contended that the press has been hypercritical in the administration’s first days. The official attributed some confusion to reporters directing their inquiries to the wrong communications staffers and said that staffers were also becoming more efficient at dealing with the deluge of questions they receive each day. “Things have definitely gotten smoother,” the official said.

But is the West Wing also intentionally screwing with reporters? “Probably not,” said the official with a smirk. “I’m kidding. I’m kidding.”

***

With 49 seats and some risers at the back for camera operators, the White House briefing room is smaller than you would imagine. The Doric columns that flank the podium suggest a grand scale to television viewers, but in person, they more resemble the comically undersized Stonehenge props that descend onto the stage in This Is Spinal Tap.

The ease of access to the room and its openness to journalists of all types—including, oftentimes, those who lack any apparent affiliation or audience or history of producing journalism—remains both a quirk and a marvel of American democracy. Almost anyone can show up, and they often do—a fact the administration has exploited to implement some of its more successful digs at the mainstream media: mixing up the latest season of the daily press briefing with fresh faces and zany new characters.

In the week before Trump took office, one of the first suggestions floated for shaking up the White House press corps involved moving briefings from the West Wing to a larger space in the Old Executive Office Building next door. Spicer later argued that the intention was merely to allow more reporters to participate, but journalists took this trial balloon as an attempt to undermine their access to the West Wing, and loudly protested the idea.

“Everybody threw a fit,” recalled a White House official, who said the administration is not currently eyeing any plans to move the briefings.

In the early days of Trump’s presidency, the small room was packed to the gills, with reporters spilling out the door at the back of the room and into the workspace beyond. By March, the numbers had come down, but Spicer was still drawing as many reporters as presidents themselves drew in prior administrations. At one packed Wednesday afternoon briefing that month, frustrated photographers shoved through the crowded aisles to get their shot. “Jesus,” one muttered under his breath. “What the … ” exclaimed another.

In addition to insatiable public interest in the Trump presidency, high attendance has been driven by innovations that make the briefings more valuable to more reporters, at the expense of the biggest mainstream outlets. Recent administrations have tended to grant the first question at each briefing to the Associated Press and to lavish the most attention on the first two rows—the networks, the wires and the three most prominent national newspapers—which generally can be counted on to focus on the big issues of the day. Playing favorites to one degree or another is standard operating procedure for any administration, and one correspondent pointed out that the Washington Blade, an LGBT newspaper, regularly had its questions answered at Obama-era briefings.

Spicer’s briefings, though, are more freewheeling and include questions to more reporters than in the past. Right-leaning outlets especially—like the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller, the Christian Broadcasting Network, Breitbart and Newsmax—have found themselves more reliably in the mix.

“Reporters know they can come in every day and know they have a pretty good chance of getting called on, which was not the case with the Obama administration,” said Jennifer Wishon of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which has seen its access improve under Trump. “From my perspective, the briefing room is a much more pleasant place to be.”

The other noticeable change to protocol is the introduction of occasional questions asked by video conference from smaller outlets outside Washington. More predictable grumbling aside, even some members of the first two rows look favorably upon the new practice. While some questioners, like the talk radio host who addressed his question to “Commander Spicer,” can be fawning, others, like an Arkansas business editor who pressed Spicer on the administration’s plans for enforcing federal marijuana laws, have extracted big news.

These changes offer two benefits to the administration: They align with Trump’s message that he will pierce the Beltway bubble with the priorities of the rest of the country, and they weaken mainstream outlets’ control of the political narrative.

Spicer’s innovations have garnered mixed reviews from reporters. “It creates a carnival-like atmosphere in the briefing room,” said one veteran correspondent, who speculated that this plays into the administration’s desire to portray the press as a pack of unruly animals.

“During the Obama administration, we were called on during nearly every press briefing,” said CNN’s Jim Acosta. “During this administration, we have gone four briefings in a row without a question.”

But grumble as they might about the increased attention lavished on conservative outlets like Newsmax, mainstream reporters do not dispute the legitimacy of their presence in the briefing room.

The same cannot be said for the Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump blog with ties to Bannon known for running National Enquirer-style headlines about Hillary Clinton’s alleged maladies and having to retract an unusual number of its posts after they turn out to be based on internet hoaxes. At the invitation of the Trump administration, the site has stood up its first White House correspondent, Lucian Wintrich, a former advertising agency creative who has no background in journalism and first entered politics by exhibiting erotic photographs of scantily clad men in “Make America Great Again” hats at last summer’s Republican National Convention. The publication is viewed as the administration’s fifth column inside the briefing room, even more so than Breitbart, which has trashed Priebus and helped derail Trump’s health care bill.

Indeed, Gateway Pundit’s primary mission in setting up a White House correspondent is to take on the White House press corps it is joining. “What fucking idiots,” Wintrich said of his new colleagues, recalling one mid-March briefing. “They were totally fixated on Trump’s tweets.”

***

A year after opening the briefing room, Nixon made another innovation in press handling with the creation of the White House “plumbers” on July 24, 1971. Formed to root out executive branch leakers, the plumbers would quickly spin out of control and bring down Nixon’s presidency when news of their crimes leaked, drip by drip, in the pages of the Washington Post.

Half a century later, the biggest change ushered in by this White House, and the one welcomed by reporters across the board, is the weakening of its control over the narrative through indiscriminate leaking.

In the first days of the Obama administration, there were no encrypted messaging apps, and Gchat was blocked on White House computers. To communicate with reporters in a form that would not be recorded, staff had to truck across the street to a coffee shop or find a quiet place for a cellphone conversation, enough of a hurdle to force them to pause and reconsider making the call. “Now,” said a reporter, “these people can sit at their desk and fire off a Gchat and not really have to think, ‘Should I be doing this?’”

If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue, they are crazy cooperative,” said one reporter.

According to National Journal’s veteran correspondent George Condon, George W. Bush and Obama maintained tight message discipline in their White Houses, while Ronald Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations were undisciplined and leaky. Nothing, though, compares with the Trump deluge.

Embarrassing details of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, including a threat to invade Mexico and a cranky hang-up on the prime minister of Australia, have leaked. Endless stories about the administration’s imperious handling of the National Security Council have leaked. The fact that Trump approved an ill-fated military raid in Yemen over dinner with Bannon and Kushner leaked. It seems that every Trump mood swing and personal foible has leaked, along with endless details about the rivalries and distrust among aides.

Even the fallout from leaks inevitably leaks. When Breitbart News’ Matt Boyle reported that Priebus’ job could be in jeopardy due to poor performance, citing sources close to the White House, Bannon berated Boyle for the story on a conference call with other top administration officials. Details of Bannon’s call soon leaked. When Spicer moved to crack down on leaks by forcing staffers to hand over their phones for examination, news of the incident quickly leaked. When Trump berated his inner circle for their missteps at an Oval Office meeting in March and details of the meeting leaked, Priebus spent much of his afternoon attempting to kill stories about the meeting, a gambit that both failed and leaked.

The spectacle has Washington veterans in awe. “If I ever saw six White House aides quoted in a story and didn’t know who they were, I would freak the fuck out,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s first director of White House communications. “The fact that they got 18 in a [recent Washington Post] story is phenomenal.”

“This is the most porous administration I have observed,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who has studied the messaging of every administration since Gerald Ford’s. “The leaks seemingly come from everywhere.”

Even on this point, there is tension between the press corps and the White House. The communications team feels it does not get enough credit for the level of access it offers reporters, both to officials and to the president. According to figures compiled by Kumar, Trump held more news conferences in his first 50 days—five—than Obama, George W. Bush or Reagan did in their first 50 days. (One of Trump’s pressers was an epic, impromptu performance for the history books, while the other four were tightly controlled joint news conferences with foreign leaders.) Trump held more short Q&As with reporters—seven—in his first 50 days, than Obama, George H.W. Bush or Reagan, though not nearly as many as either George W. Bush or Clinton, who held 47 in 50 days. And Trump gave 17 interviews, fewer than Obama’s 25, but more than his other four most recent predecessors.

But access does not always produce insight. Reporters contend that while White House officials seem to have all day to talk about internal grudges, basic policy questions tend to go unanswered. When the Associated Press obtained a memo in mid-February that apparently showed the Department of Homeland Security considering a plan to mobilize the National Guard to assist in deportations, the White House ignored the wire service’s inquiries and waited for it to publish a story before bothering to deny its contents. Yet when New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi texted Kellyanne Conway to ask her if the president had un-followed his famous White House counselor on Twitter, Conway ensured the president followed her account within minutes.

“If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue, they are crazy cooperative,” said one reporter, voicing a common observation. “But if you have any sort of legitimate question, if you need a yes or no answer on policy, they’re impossible.”

“As anti-establishment as all the Trump people are, I’ve never seen a group of people so conscious of their standing in Washington that they’d spend so much time talking to reporters about who was up and who was down,” Pfeiffer said.

Amid all of this intrigue, White House officials have turned to the only people they can trust: reporters, who have started getting calls from senior Trump aides asking whether other senior Trump aides have been leaking dirt on them.

The administration contends that the obsession with who’s squabbling with whom originates with the press corps. “It’s hard to answer substantive questions when they’re rarely asked,” complained one White House official. Of course, much of the access comes in the form of unsanctioned leaks, a source of continuing frustration to the White House. According to one White House correspondent, communications staffers spend a good deal of their time puzzling over blind quotes in news reports, trying to identify the leakers by their grammar and syntax.

The White House is particularly sensitive to any hint of daylight between Priebus and Bannon, two men who represent opposite wings of the Republican Party and whose unclear lines of authority have been an endless source of press fascination. In early February, when a reporter began poking around on their relationship, the White House reached out with an unsolicited offer of a joint interview with both men, according to a person familiar with the episode. Bannon and Priebus made themselves available to what seemed like half the press corps to broadcast their mutual affection.

The White House’s focus on perceptions of the Bannon-Priebus relationship has come with opportunity costs—a particular source of frustration to Conway, who feels the building will come to a screeching halt to defend their images while she is hung out to dry. (Conway has proved more than capable of promoting her brand and courting reporters herself, most recently lavishing access on Nuzzi and Molly Ball of the Atlantic.)

In one-on-one interactions, reporters from some of the administration’s least-favored outlets have found Bannon shockingly friendly, cheerily offering his apocalyptic denunciations of the press as casual asides in the course of pleasant conversations. But performing onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon stuck to his “opposition party” line about the media. “It’s not only not going to get better,” he said of White House-press relations. “It’s going to get worse every day.”

Chris Ruddy—who flaunts his direct access to Trump, to the chagrin of many West Wing staffers—predicts things will get much better, however, as the president adjusts to the feedback he is receiving. And Trump’s lieutenants, as Ruddy has learned, have their hands full enough dealing with perceived threats from within Trumpworld without adding reporters to their lists.

In February, Ruddy set off a panic in the West Wing when he publicly lambasted Priebus’ job performance. To minimize the damage, White House officials including Priebus and Spicer told reporters on background that Ruddy was a poseur with little real access to Trump, a gambit that backfired when the Newsmax chief was subsequently seen palling around with the president at Mar-a-Lago and inside the Oval Office.

“What they try to do is discredit sources—‘Don’t talk to Ruddy, he’s full of shit’—and then you see Ruddy with his arm around Trump,” said one reporter on the receiving end of the anti-Ruddy pitch. “It destroys their credibility.”

Ruddy attributed the incident to a misunderstanding. “People like Reince and Spicer weren’t aware of how much contact I’ve had with the president since the election,” he said. “I think they’re aware now.”

White House officials have further damaged their credibility by decrying anonymous sources, as Priebus did in February, when it is widely known that he and every other member of the senior staff speak regularly to reporters on background. One senior White House aide complained that in late March, Priebus worked furiously to spin how he would be portrayed in a New York Times article about Pence and then walked into a Thursday afternoon meeting and lectured his colleagues about the importance of avoiding reporters. “He was, like, running around trying to kill the piece and get the quotes changed,” said the aide. “Then he comes into the senior staff meeting and says, ‘This is why we don’t talk to the press.’”

One reporter said he has been surprised to find that background information from Trump White House officials is more reliable than what they say on the record, a reversal from previous administrations that he has covered. Especially unreliable is anything said on camera, as it is most likely to be seen by Trump, who watches television religiously. By the end of March, according to a Politico Magazine analysis, Spicer had uttered 51 unique falsehoods or misleading statements in his press briefings, on topics ranging from voter fraud to Obamacare to Trump’s Russia ties.

The on-camera obfuscation has made it more important for journalists to seek off-camera clarifications from Spicer, drawing throngs to Upper Press, the communications staff offices that sit up a small ramp from the briefing room in the West Wing. One veteran journalist said he has learned not to wear heavy clothing up there because of the body heat.

The crowds have caused more tension with the White House staff, and the issue has been compounded by the fact that while Obama generally accessed the Oval Office from the outdoor portico, Trump makes more use of the indoor hallway, making the reporters a greater nuisance.

They also make for useful props. Priebus has been known to pluck individual reporters from the throngs waiting outside Spicer’s office and take them by the arm to his own office to have a chat, strolling through real estate that puts them in view of the national security adviser’s office, the vice president’s office, and those of Bannon and oftentimes Kushner, the president’s powerful son-in-law.

“That’s as much for him to help the reporter as it is to show everyone else in the building that he’s talking to that reporter, too,” said one journalist familiar with the routine. “To flex his muscles, to show he still has some juice with that reporter, so don’t try to make an end run around him and tell that reporter something that’s not true.”

On the last Friday in February, the day after Priebus and Bannon took their buddy act to CPAC, Spicer, back at the White House, offered a briefing to an “expanded pool” inside his office that included several friendly outlets but barred Politico, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and others. Demonizing the press in general is one thing. Excluding specific outlets from basic access strikes a rawer nerve, and the move prompted fierce protests.

***

Behind the briefing room podium, there is a door leading to Upper Press and, beyond that, the rest of the West Wing. For most of the room’s existence, the door has remained unlocked, giving reporters unfettered access to the administrations they covered. Just after noon on January 20, 1993, Billl Clinton’s staff took control of the briefing room and locked the door, setting the tone for eight rocky years.

The hostility between Trump’s White House and the press may be unusually acute, but it is not interrupting any decades-long streak of bonhomie. For all of the perceptions of Obama as a media darling, his time in office was marked by an unprecedented crackdown on leakers and new restrictions on basic access for reporters.

Obama-era press briefings tended to be staid affairs, but acrimony was common behind the scenes. “Jay Carney used to call editors and scream at them,” said Condon of Obama’s second White House press secretary. “And if he was doing that complaining about headlines in National Journal, I could only imagine what he was doing with the bureau chiefs of the networks who reach millions of viewers.”

Under Trump, the door to Upper Press has remained unlocked. The door to the Oval Office has also remained open to the newspapers that Trump lambasts the most, including the Washington Post, whose Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker have been whisked inside during the course of other West Wing meetings for an off-the-record chat with the president while a White House photographer snapped photos.

When things really go south in the relationship, the real losers don’t seem to be Trump or the press. Instead, the brunt falls on Trump’s staff, the people caught in between.

Working for Trump, especially in communications, is tough. Just as he marks up printouts of news stories in sharpie with feedback for their authors, he also uses printouts to grade the performances of his surrogates like a persnickety schoolmarm. One senior White House aide reported receiving only positive notes from the president’s sharpie, such as “Good job!”

And television performances deemed insufficient by the boss can demand do-overs: When Sarah Huckabee Sanders went on ABC’s “This Week” on a recent Sunday to defend Trump’s early morning Twitter claims that a bad (or sick) President Obama had tapped his phones, her defense apparently left something to be desired. On Monday morning, she was back on the same network, ABC, to defend the exact same claims, this time more forcefully. Sanders did not respond to a request for comment about the episode. A senior White House aide who declined to comment directly on the episode said, “He’ll review things after we’ve said them on TV. He’s a TV guy.”

The mulligan, according to a person familiar with the episode, was ordered by Trump. “I have sympathy for her because she’s an adult. She knows what she’s been doing to this point is not helping her brand,” said the person. “But she gets told to go out there and say things.”

And Trump has had no problem undermining his staff in front of others. The day after the Politico article about Spicer’s leak-busting strategy was published, Trump taped an interview with “Fox & Friends” in which he took exception to Spicer’s leak crackdown, saying he “would have done it differently.” In the midst of it all, Trump and Spicer sat down the next day with the enemy, participating in the traditional White House luncheon with network television anchors ahead of his first joint address to Congress that night.

The last time Trump had gathered privately with media representatives, for a meeting in Trump Tower during the transition, he had torn into an NBC executive for using an unflattering photograph of him online and criticized CNN. The participants were unsure what to expect inside the State Dining Room. “You walked in and you didn’t know if there was going to be a scolding of Jake Tapper,” said one attendee.

This time, Trump was cordial with the anchors, including CNN’s Tapper. But he did talk about being “treated fairly,” and he looked pointedly at Tapper and his colleague Wolf Blitzer when, according to another attendee, he said, “There are some networks, and I’m not going to mention names, I’m surprised I don’t watch them, because I want to find out what they’re saying, but I feel better not watching them.” (Trump was still watching CNN at least as of December, when according to Ruddy, the president called to thank him for defending him after an appearance on the network’s show “Reliable Sources.”)

Trump saved his most pointed remarks for his own staff. When Fox’s Bret Baier asked Trump about the C+ grade he had given himself on messaging during a recent “Fox & Friends” interview, there was one person the president seemed to blame: Spicer.

“He looked directly at Sean and said, ‘We can do better, right, Sean? I know, Sean, we can do better, right?’” recounted the second attendee. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, if that was my boss who said that to me … ’”

Through it all, Spicer has been unfailingly loyal—defending all of Trump’s most risible lies and baseless contentions despite the snickering of his frenemies in the press corps. He has defended Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election (though not vigorously enough for Trump, who took his press secretary’s initial milquetoast defense as “disloyal,” according to one journalist plugged into the administration). To back up Trump’s claim that Obama tapped his phones, Spicer suggested that Obama had asked Britain to spy on Trump for him, a claim that originated with a commentator on a Russian propaganda network and earned angry on-the-record rebukes from the British government and a senior National Security Agency official. And as news was set to break about Paul Manafort’s past work to further the interests of the Russian government, Spicer said the former chairman of Trump’s campaign had played a “minimal role” in electing Trump despite saying months earlier, “Paul’s in charge.”

“He is probably not long for this job anyway, so he should be more conscious about his own personal credibility for the day he leaves the White House,” Pfeiffer said of Spicer. “No one wants to spend the rest of their life being an internet meme, and that’s the path Sean is on now.”

There’s not a single … president who didn’t really dislike his press coverage. But none of them … declared war.”

While Spicer has, in the words of one White House correspondent, “beclowned himself” in the course of defending the indefensible, his West Wing colleagues have paid him back for his service with a stream of vicious leaks: about Trump’s disapproval of Spicer’s briefing performance and the fact that he is portrayed by a woman, Melissa McCarthy, on “Saturday Night Live.”

Media companies, meanwhile, have been laughing all the way to the bank. In the weeks after the election, the New York Times reported it was adding new subscribers at 10 times the normal pace. The Wall Street Journal reported a 300 percent spike in new subscriptions on the day after Trump’s victory.

Shows like “Morning Joe” and “The O’Reilly Factor” have boosted their advertising rates—some by as much as about 50 percent—because Trump and his advisers are known to watch them. Rachel Maddow experienced a nine-year record in March when she revealed details of Trump’s 2005 tax returns, with more than 4 million people tuning in. According to CNN, the network’s total audience in the first quarter of 2017 is the highest it has been in any first quarter since 2003, when the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. As for Trump’s preferred network, the first quarter of 2017 was the best three months Fox News has ever had.

***

There are no magical forces guaranteeing that ritualized warfare stays within its prescribed bounds. Only sufficiently abundant resources and a rough balance of power keep such encounters from turning deadly.

Likewise, beneath the surface of Trump’s phony war lurks the potential for a real one, the kind that that threatens careers, business models and presidencies.

Before taking office, Trump expressed his opposition to AT&T’s proposed merger with CNN parent company Time Warner, and raised the prospect of pursuing antitrust measures against Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post, a frequent subject of the Manhattan mogul’s ire. Trump aide Omarosa Manigault has reportedly spoken of “dossiers” being assembled on journalists—Spicer has denied this—and rumors are rife among White House reporters that a member of the press team is conducting opposition research on them.

“Like any other work relationship, it would be prudent and easy to adhere to that old adage, ‘It’s not personal,’ but so much of it is,” said a senior White House aide. “So much of it between the press and this administration is personal.”

If the Trump team’s ties to Russia or some other scandal develops into an existential threat, the administration could lash out in increasingly desperate ways. Conversely, a major terrorist attack or the outbreak of a real war could rebalance the distribution of power in the briefing room and give Trump the leverage to pursue his fantasies of controlling coverage and punishing perceived media adversaries.

The president’s extreme rhetoric has already laid groundwork for the sort of crackdown not seen since the Alien and Sedition Acts. “There’s no comparison between what’s happening now and any previous White House,” says Condon. “There’s not a single American president who didn’t really dislike his press coverage. But none of them, not a single one of them, declared war on the press in the first week.”

For now, the leaks and the access and the chaos are providing an accidental public service, even if they’re doing little to advance Trump’s own agenda. “The American people are being incredibly well-served because it’s this real-time history,” said one journalist. “The president isn’t being served.”

Fittingly, when the first major item on the president’s agenda, health care reform, went up in flames in late March, the first thing Trump did was pick up the phone and call the two newspapers he has publicly maligned the most. First, he called Bob Costa at the Washington Post. Then he called Maggie Haberman, a reporter he had recently complained about in conversations with Ruddy, at the New York Times, a paper he had recently singled out as an enemy of the people.

In doing so, Trump was only obeying the one iron rule of the Trump White House: Keep your friends close, and the reporters closer.

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Macron, Le Pen headed to runoff in French presidential election

PARIS — Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen appeared positioned Sunday to move to the second round of the most tightly contested French presidential election in decades, in the latest test of a global populist wave that led to surprise electoral results in the United States and elsewhere.

If polls conducted before the first round of voting Sunday prove true, Macron will likely be the next president, an outcome that would come as a relief to both bureaucrats in Brussels and international investors. French politics have been reshaped dramatically this year — both of France’s traditional parties, the Socialists and Les Républicains, collapsed — but it appears the center may hold.

President Donald Trump appeared to flirt with supporting a Le Pen win as the election approached, telling The Associated Press last week that while he wasn’t endorsing her, he thought she was the “strongest on borders.”

Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, wants to overhaul France’s relationship with the European Union to give Paris far greater control over borders and economic policy. She has proposed calling a referendum on France’s membership in the EU and floated pulling the country out of the eurozone, which would likely throw Europe into a recession.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus played down Trump’s comments on Sunday, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the president’s comments did not suggest he wanted Le Pen to win.

“I think he may have some opinions, as far as who he thinks might win. But he certainly doesn’t have a preference, other than a right-of-center person who believes in the free market,” Priebus said.

The White House had not weighed in on the results publicly as of Sunday afternoon.

French media projected Macron and Le Pen would win close to 23 percent of the vote each, with one poll putting Macron slightly ahead of Le Pen. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and conservative former Prime Minister François Fillon each took about 19 percent of the first-round vote.

That means Macron and Le Pen will face off in the final round on May 7. Opinion polls published ahead of the first round suggested Macron would beat Le Pen easily in a runoff, which would be essentially a redo of the 2002 “republican front” that delivered over 80 percent of the vote to Jacques Chirac in order to keep Le Pen’s father, Jean Marine Le Pen, out of the Elysée Palace.

Fillon immediately called on his supporters to vote for Macron in a concession speech Sunday. So did Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, who came in fifth place with between 6 percent and 7 percent of the vote — a paltry total that, while in line with recent polls, underscores the disintegration of the Socialist party in France. Socialist President Francois Hollande is the first French president since World War II not to run for a second term, and the party had sought to shed Hollande’s unpopularity by nominating one of his biggest critics within the party.

Macron also held off a late surge by Mélenchon, whose communist sympathies and anti-EU, anti-NATO sentiments would have sent investors and diplomats into a panic if he’d ended up in a runoff with Le Pen.

Macron, who ran on a liberal, pro-EU platform, is a political novice, a 39-year-old former banker who has never held elected office. He formed his own independent political movement last year after resigning his post as Hollande’s economy minister.

The boyish banker has promised fiscal discipline in line with eurozone rules, partly in the hope of convincing Germany to agree to a common investment budget and joint finance minister for the zone.

The Islamist-motivated shooting on the Champs Elysées on Thursday threatened to upend the already-volatile race. Trump, who was quick to call it a terrorist attack, predicted on Twitter that it would have a “big effect” on the election. Some centrist observers worry that another attack over the next two weeks could drive an already nervous electorate into the arms of the anti-immigrant Le Pen. France has been under a state of emergency for 16 months, after a string of terror attacks in 2015.

Le Pen’s total Sunday is the highest ever for the National Front in a presidential election and just the second time her party has made it to the runoff, after her father shocked the establishment with his second-place finish in the first round of the 2002 election.

Should Macron win as expected, the election may be interpreted — along with the Dutch election earlier this year — as a turning of the tide against the populist surge that gripped Western politics in 2016.

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6 takeaways from French election's first round

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Le Pen: Election runoff is battle for soul of France

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Trump and Congress eye shutdown showdown over border wall

President Donald Trump and Congress are on a collision course over government funding this week, as the White House demands money for a border wall with Mexico and Democrats vow it will never see a penny.

But just five days out from a government shutdown, Trump appears headed for disappointment. Democrats are signaling they’re unlikely to cave, and Hill Republicans are already pressing the administration to fight another day.

That means the White House is largely on its own in a high-stakes game of political chicken, weakening its negotiating position. Even Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the former Homeland Security Committee chairman who wrote the 2006 law authorizing the wall’s construction, said the White House should push for it later in the year.

“There’s going to be compromises going on,” King said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.” “Once the government is up and running, and stays open and running, then we have to fight this out over the next year.”

The face-off comes as lawmakers return to Washington following a two-week Easter recess. Government funding expires Friday, leaving Congress little time to strike a deal. A White House push for progress on repealing Obamacare will also consume energy on Capitol Hill, even as a vote on legislation this week appears unlikely.

White House officials and several senior House Republican sources say a short, one-week stopgap may be needed to buy more time to negotiate on a larger bill to fund the government through September.

In the meantime, both sides are puffing up their chests, refusing to budge from their hard-line positions on one of Trump’s most famous campaign pledges. Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly both reiterated during Sunday interviews that Trump would need a down payment on his wall as part of a government funding package.

“It goes without saying that the president has been pretty straightforward about his desire and the need for the border wall,” Kelly said on CNN. “He’ll do the right thing for sure, but I would expect he’ll be insistent on the funding.”

On cue, Democrats scoffed.

“The Democrats do not support the wall,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The burden to keep it open is on the Republicans. The wall is, in my view, immoral, expensive, unwise.”

Meanwhile, sensing the judgments of pundits and politicians surrounding Trump’s 100-day mark this Saturday, the White House is also cranking up the heat on Speaker Paul Ryan to pass an Obamacare repeal-and-replacement this week, another heavy lift for the House.

Mulvaney suggested Sunday the chamber could pass both a health care and government funding bill in the coming days, and he said he’s even “heard rumors” that House lawmakers may work through next weekend to get the repeal passed. That’s a notion most popular among increasingly impatient White House officials; House Republicans have no plans at this time to hold lawmakers in town through the weekend.

Ryan also downplayed the possibility of a health care vote this week during a conference call with Republican lawmakers Saturday. While GOP leaders are more optimistic about reaching a deal to win over their fractious conference, a vote won’t be held until party whips are confident they have the votes for passage.

Plus, the focus on Capitol Hill is the still-unsettled negotiation to avoid a shutdown.

The White House’s hard-line insistence on wall money in the final stages of talks has perplexed some lawmakers, particularly after Trump’s vows that Mexico would pay for the wall, not taxpayers. Numerous senior Hill Republicans don’t think the White House request — a $1.4 billion down payment on a construction project that might ultimately cost more than $20 billion — is worth such extensive political capital at this time.

Most GOP lawmakers say they’re confident there will be no shutdown, echoing comments Ryan expressed to House members Saturday. But they will need significant Democratic votes in both chambers, especially with the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.

“We have to find eight votes in the Senate to avoid the Senate filibuster,” Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said on “Sunday Morning Futures.” “We’re going to have to find the way we bring Senate Democrats along.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said it would be dangerous for the United States to flirt with a shutdown during a time of instability in Europe, the rising threat from North Korea and an ongoing conflict in Syria.

“We cannot shut down the government right now,” Rubio said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” later adding that the border fight is “worth having for 2018” funding rather than for the current fiscal year. “The last thing we can afford is to send a message to the world is that the United States government, by the way, is partially functioning.”

Privately, numerous Hill Republicans believe the White House will eventually cave on the wall — though Trump is expected to win some extra money for the Pentagon and border security that don’t relate to wall construction.

Some administration officials, however, are adamant that they could pin fault for a government shutdown on Democrats. Mulvaney said Sunday that Republicans would blame the left for “holding hostage national security.” White House legislative liaison Marc Short said “the American people have been clear that they want the border secured.”

“I think the president’s been clear, and the American people elected him on wanting border security,” Short said in an interview Friday. “We don’t see how that’s a controversial element in our minds. … The American people elected us based on that.”

Still, a shutdown showdown is a risky gamble for Republicans, as they control all the levers of power in Washington and would likely shoulder blame, too.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus took a slightly less aggressive approach than other Trump officials, saying on “Meet the Press” that he believes the government will stay open and that he’s “pretty confident we’re going to get something satisfactory” for border security.

He also would not say that Trump will veto a bill that does not explicitly include wall funding. But Republicans on Capitol Hill say they aren’t sure whether Mulvaney, Kelly or Priebus represent Trump’s true position. That complicates the job for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Ryan as they try to move a funding bill that can pass the House and Senate and be signed by Trump.

“Hard to know whom is speaking for Trump,” said a Republican familiar with negotiations. “No one wants to be the bearer of bad news.”

The wall money isn’t the only spending sticking point for Congress and the White House. Democrats have demanded the administration commit to funding Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies either in law through the appropriations package, or via executive branch actions by the Health and Human Services Department.

The White House had threatened to cut off funding the subsidies, a stance Trump doubled down on through a Sunday tweet: “ObamaCare is in serious trouble. The Dems need big money to keep it going – otherwise it dies far sooner than anyone would have thought.”

Trump is using the threat as a negotiation tactic to bring Democrats to the table. Mulvaney and senior White House officials have offered Democrats a dollar of Obamacare subsidy funding for a dollar of wall funding.

But so far, Democrats haven’t budged.

“I hope the president will back off,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber. He called Trump’s hard-line tactics on the wall a “political stunt” and said a shutdown “would be the height of irresponsibility. He would not want that to define his first 100 days.”

Tara Palmeri contributed to this report.

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