A Joust on the President and the Press

By Jamie Stiehm

February 23, 2018 5 min read

WASHINGTON — The White House press corps is the best and the brightest. This elite collection of high achievers works in a small, crowded space and covers a president just ranked dead last by American political experts. Yes, our own Donald J. Trump after one tumultuous year. What a surprise.

This set up a strange waltz between journalists on the plum beat and the baddest boy ever to occupy the Oval Office. News organizations had to change their game to keep up with Trump's tweets at dawn, for one thing. On the other hand, Trump's churn of unedited candor gives a real picture in real time of what's going on inside the palace. By contrast, the disciplined, distant President Obama was a hard quarry, even face to face, making long statements with no interruptions.

As White House correspondent Peter Baker of The New York Times said, "When's the last time a president told you what he really thought?"

I attended a frank forum, given by the White House Correspondents Association, which aired views from both sides. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president's press secretary and Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton's press secretary, were panel guests. They didn't come to lay down their arms, but there was a rare breeze of bipartisan camaraderie, which felt like the warm Chinook wind waking up the prairie.

As we know, Trump has taunted and insulted the press more openly than any other president. John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln enjoyed repartee and banter with reporters. Harry S. Truman called the Capitol reporters "Boys" and asked them to "pray for me now" the day after beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt died and he became president in 1945. Richard M. Nixon was hateful, but behind closed doors and on tape.

Mostly, the media took Trump's hostile barrage on the chin, starting on the 2016 campaign trail. They let cameras roll and took a neutral just-the-facts-ma'am stance, with no concerted response. Yet Trump's relentless "fake news" chorus has tainted precious public trust in an institution upon which democracy depends — the Fourth Estate.

McCurry, a seasoned Washington elder who also served in a presidency that never had a dull day (and an impeachment), broke a silence in addressing Trump's theatrics and take-no-prisoners tone toward the press. The way he did it was effective, telling her pleasantly but pointedly that the president must respect the free press.

"It's not the enemy of the people," McCurry told Sanders. "Your president has got to change the way he talks about the press."

Sanders denied declaring war.

"Yes, you did," McCurry volleyed back.

For the record, on Trump's first full day in office, during the Women's March, Trump crossed over to the CIA and told the spy agency he's at "a running war" with the "dishonest" media. What a guy.

Given that Trump defies every convention in the playbook, attacking Republican senators, the Russian investigation and even his own appointees at the FBI, the press corps had to throw their playbook out, too.

All bets were off. They keep an eye on a restless spirit, boarding Air Force One with him wherever he might go. Trump hardly sleeps, with the first tweet usually landing at 5 a.m.

WHCA president Margaret Talev said "spray pools" are the best access to Trump now, coming and going on Marine One. The president likes informal give and take, literally on the fly.

But the drawback is that access is limited to the large fish in the media pond. Regional and foreign press are left out of the race to hear what Trump says in the moment.

A presidential press conference is a ritual with room for all in the press corps. Several expressed a wish for Trump to hold more. However, he has only given one such press event.

In a sit-down interview, Talev said, Trump can be a gracious, bubbling fountain of news. A White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, she wrote eight stories after one conversation.

Said Baker: "He knows exactly what he's doing, on and off the record." So Trump's shrewder than you might suppose.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit creators.com.

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