With their constant complaints about critical reporting—which they insist on branding as “fake news”—President Trump and his minions have shown no reluctance to fabricate factoids or attempt to delegitimize journalism as an institution.
But Monday’s joint White House press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau represented a new breach in what is already, after a mere 24 days of the Trump administration, a dysfunctional relationship between the president and the press.
At yesterday’s confab in the gold-curtained East Room, Trump called on two U.S. reporters, and only two, from apparently supportive outlets—the Daily Caller and Sinclair Television—and was rewarded with vaguely posed softball questions that made zero news.
“I think they [the White House communications operation] make themselves look as though they are unable to risk having the president being asked questions that he would find unwelcome,” said Emmy-winning independent television correspondent Simon Marks of the Washington-based Feature Story News. “My concern is the steady chipping-away of the sense of accountability and the chipping-away of institutions at the heart of the democratic process.”
Marks added: “It’s ignoring the people in the room who will ask substantive questions and instead going to people who are going to questions like, ‘Is there anything else you’d like to say, Mr. President?’ … I suspect they think that is a successful strategy, but at the end of the day they don’t ultimately evade the questions.”
The two lucky reporters were the Daily Caller’s White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, and Scott Thuman, chief political correspondent for Sinclair Television’s more than 150 stations, including the Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate WJLA.
“How do you see this relationship playing out?” Thuman asked Trump about U.S.-Canadian diplomacy—hardly a national headline-maker—while inviting Trudeau to compare his country’s relations with Trump to those Canada enjoyed with the Obama administration.
“Now that you’ve been in office and received intelligence briefings for nearly one month, what do you see as the most important national security matters facing us?” asked Collins, who then encouraged Trudeau to say whether he believes “President Trump’s moratorium on immigration has merit on national security grounds.”
As the president and his guest exited the East Room, Trump seemed to have heard but ignored the question that has dominated coverage over the past three days, shouted out by ABC News’s Jonathan Karl: Does Trump still have confidence in his national security adviser, retired Army General Michael Flynn, who is under fire for allegedly discussing U.S. sanctions before Trump took office with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and then claiming otherwise to Vice President Mike Pence, among other top officials who were publicly embarrassed after going on television to defend Flynn. Flynn resigned hours later Monday evening.
What’s more, nobody got a chance to ask about the latest missile test by North Korea, and whether it’s true, as widely reported, that Trump and his aides reviewed sensitive classified documents about the missile launch in front of waiters and dinner guests at Mar-a-Lago while sitting with the Japanese prime minister.
“Trump wraps up the most disgraceful White House press conference in memory, taking only two questions from US outlets, both loyal,” Marks tweeted.
“By handpicking reporters,” tweeted Peter Baker of The New York Times, “Trump manages to get through news conference without being asked about Flynn.”
And ABC’s Karl tweeted: “A total of 6 Q’s at Trump press conferences so far:
- 3 to news orgs owned by [Trump’s friend Rupert] Murdoch
- 1 to Daily Caller
- 1 to Sinclair
- 1 to Reuters.”
Karl declined to comment further.
Collins, of the right-leaning Daily Caller, told The Daily Beast in a Twitter direct message: “Personnel questions are interesting, but our readers want substance. They don’t want Washington bullshit. They want to know where the next war is going to be. Why would I even go to the press conference if we’re all supposed to ask the same question?”
Sinclair’s Thuman didn’t respond to a request for comment. Thuman’s company has denied striking a deal with the Trump campaign for access to the candidate in exchange for sympathetic coverage—an alleged arrangement touted by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a top White House adviser, during a December meeting with business executives.
Former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson, who frequently appears with Thuman on her weekly syndicated program Full Measure, defended both her colleague and his question.
“I’m all for asking tough questions at presidential opportunities and White House briefings, and have sat on the sidelines, frustrated, on many occasions over the years as it felt like some of those called upon in the press corps seemed to avoid asking basic questions on important issues of the day. So I understand the frustration,” Attkisson told The Daily Beast.
“But we in the press have to get used to the idea that we are not a monolithic group of single-minded purpose and thought working toward one common goal,” Attkisson added. “While some of us may see our job as agreeing upon the top question or two to ask the president to serve what we see as our needs and our audience, others of us may see our job as to ask the president questions related to the stories we are working on for our particular audience.
“These two purposes may not always intersect and I understand that can be very frustrating. But bullying and demonizing one another, to the extent any of that has occurred, probably isn’t going to help anything.”
Simon Marks, meanwhile, noted that White House press secretary Sean Spicer (who also didn’t respond to a request for comment) has shaken up the protocols of the briefing room by calling on conservative outlets and foreign reporters before he recognizes the broadcast and cable networks and major wire services sitting in the front row and previously accustomed to going first.
“I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the broadening the number of reporters who get an opportunity to ask questions of the president of the United States, provided there is a broad understanding that this being done to better the array of news outlets—as opposed to it being done to avoid difficult and unwelcome questions,” Marks said.
“Everybody watching that news conferences understands that the president called on those reporters because he didn’t want to answer questions about Michael Flynn. He didn’t want to answer uncomfortable questions about what went on at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend… They know those reporters are just very, very unlikely to ask those questions.”