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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