Donald Trump vilified and condemned reporters when he was a candidate. As president-elect for the past week, he seems to have moved on to simply ignoring them.
Defying the usual presidential press protocols, Trump has twice in the past week ditched the pool of reporters who follow him in public. The latest incident occurred Tuesday night, when reporters were led to believe by his staff that he had retired for the night – only to learn that he was at dinner with his family at a restaurant in New York.
Trump has not held a news conference since the election and has not designated a surrogate to brief reporters on his transition. This has left journalists in the dark about key appointments and other developments with his new administration.
The cold shoulder has renewed a nagging question for reporters: Will President-elect Trump’s behavior be a preview of his approach, or perhaps non-approach, to his relations with the news media when he takes office?
The pool consists of a small group of reporters who follow the president and president-elect to all public appearances and act as proxies for hundreds of other reporters. This “protective pool” – which is cleared by the Secret Service – then shares its observations with fellow journalists. The arrangement enables reporters to know the president’s whereabouts at all times and to report anything newsworthy, from the mundane to an attack on his life.
But Trump has blown off the pool as president-elect twice in the past eight days, the first time in Washington last Thursday when he met with President Barack Obama at the White House and later with Republican leaders.
That elicited a worried statement Monday from the White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents reporters in negotiations about press access to the president. The organization said it was “deeply concerned” by Trump’s decision to reject a protective pool.
“This is all about the public having information,” Julie Pace, the Associated Press’s White House reporter, said Wednesday. “If there were an emergency or a crisis, would people want to know where the president is? I think most people would say yes.”
Tuesday’s episode particularly exasperated reporters because Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, had told them around 6:15 p.m. that Trump had returned to Trump Tower for the night, placing what’s known in pool parlance as a “lid” on further activities.
Trump’s subsequent appearance for dinner at a midtown Manhattan steakhouse set off a Keystone Kops-style scramble by reporters to get to the scene. One group set off in a cab but wound up at the wrong restaurant, thanks to an errant report by another journalist. Once they arrived at the proper location, the 21 Club, they found it barricaded by police.
Several journalists – those without New York City press passes – were ordered by police to stand a block away from the restaurant, where their view of the restaurant was blocked by a dumpster.
Hicks said Tuesday night that she was unaware of Trump’s dinner and that she didn’t intend “to leave the press in the dark.” She said in an email Wednesday, “We are still in the process of formalizing a protective pool structure and look forward to implementing that as soon as possible.”
Once that is set up, she told pool reporters Tuesday, journalists will have “all of the access that they have ever had under any president.”
However, the signs have not been promising. In addition to repeatedly disparaging reporters at his rallies, Trump has shown few signs of transparency. He declined to release his tax returns during the campaign, making him the first major presidential candidate in 40 years to withhold them. He banned about a dozen news organizations, including The Washington Post, from his rallies and events, and threatened to sue others, including the New York Times. At one point, he traveled to Mexico City without telling the media. He has also refused to fly on the same plane as his campaign pool.
Since Election Day, Trump’s staff has declined to answer even basic questions about how he is building his new administration. The news blackout has led to much speculation. Perhaps responding to the confusion, Trump sent a tweet Tuesday night reading: “Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”
Trump is not required to speak to the news media, but he has dispensed with generations-old traditions and formalities that have framed the relationship between the news media and presidential politicians.
“His combative approach to press relations is not helpful,” said Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University who studies the news media. “He clearly doesn’t respect the media, which he is certainly allowed to do, but at a certain point he has to find a way to work with them. When he decided to run for president, he stepped into a much higher degree of scrutiny than what he had as a reality-TV star and businessman. Now that he is president-elect, that press attention necessarily grows.”
“He doesn’t owe it so much to the press to be accessible as he owes it to the citizens who are represented by their press surrogates,” McCall added. “His prospects for a successful presidency hinge in large part on his ability to keep his message in front of the public. Whether he likes it or not, those messages will go through the filter of the press.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Paul Farhi