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February 22nd, 2017

Insight

Now That Trump's Decided To Meet The Press, Will His White House Choose To Beat The Press?

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Nov. 23, 2016

As we wait to learn the identities of Donald Trump's choices for the "big three" of his cabinet - Secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury - there's another high-profile position that's still unsettled.

White House Press Secretary.

It's a timely question, given that Trump just sat down in private with television executive and on-air personalities (accounts varied from "contentious "reset" meeting" to a "f-ing firing squad"). On Tuesday, the President-elect is scheduled for more of the same: meeting with editors, reporters and columnists employed by The New York Times, Trump's bête noire in this election.

If recent presidential transitions are any guide, the next White House spokesman is right around the corner. President-Elect Obama tapped Robert Gibbs on November 22, 2008 - 24 days after that year's election. Ari Fleischer was the choice for George W. Bush just 15 days after Al Gore threw in the towel.

But in what direction does Trump go? Sean Spicer, currently a spokesman for the Trump transition, would be a classic insider pick - since 2011, he's handled media relations for the Republican National Committee.

Then there's Laura Ingraham, the talk-radio host who reportedly also is under consideration. Subtle and nuanced she's not, such as this Sunday takedown of fellow Fox News contributor Juan Williams.

Perhaps Trump instead chooses what's behind door number-three and a different press secretary. Such is the speculation game these days.

Meanwhile, here are three things to watch with regard to a Trump presidency and its relationship with the Fourth Estate.

Location, Location, Location. Members of the press have had dedicated workspace at the White House with the completion of the West Wing in 1902.

That streak almost came to an end, three presidencies ago.

Before Bill Clinton's team moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, serious consideration was given to removing the press from the big white building (Hillary Clinton loved the idea and had to be sold on a compromise in which reporters stayed, but lost direct access to the White House communications director's office).

Members of the press have had dedicated workspace at the White House with the completion of the West Wing in 1902. That streak didn't end with Clinton.

A Trump Administration could exile the White House press Corps to one of the Executive Office Buildings. If so, the same media that had a cow over Trump's sneaking away for a steak would erupt in an outright stampede.

End Runs. On Monday, the President-Elect outlined his policy plans for the first 100 days and discussed his day-one executive actions.

Where was this done? Live on the cable networks, in front of a gaggle of print and electronic reporters?

Not quite.

Trump simply dropped this video on YouTube.

Maybe Team Trump figured that eschewing live media came with the added benefit of no filter to the viewing public, plus none of those nasty follow-up questions.

But it also reflects the reality that Trump got to this point without much help from the mainstream media - now the same people waiting for the President-elect to give them something to report.

It brings to mind a line that Bill Clinton delivered at the Capitol Hill Radio-Television Correspondents Association just two months into his presidency: "You know why I can stiff you on the press conferences? Because Larry King liberated me from you by giving me to the American people directly."

The joke fell flat because Clinton was raising an ugly, unstated truth: thanks to cable and satellite television, Clinton didn't need inside-the-beltway media to deliver news to his constituents.

Two decades later, Trump has a weapon that Clinton did not at the beginning of their respective presidencies: the Internet and social media. As that video drop suggests, how much hard news will a Trump White House feed to the networks and the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post versus the safer harbors of YouTube, Twitter and friendly Internet news outfits?

Saying No To Dinner. And if Trump wants to go first-strike nuclear: he could tell the press he's otherwise occupied on the night of April 29, when the White House Correspondents Association holds its annual black-tie dinner that's broadcast live on C-SPAN.

It's a tradition dating back to the famously anti-social Calvin Coolidge - the President and First Lady sitting at a ballroom head table in the company of Washington journalists, wheelers and dealers and their celebrity friends (the Republican presidents, at least, pretending to be having a good time).

The dinner's been cancelled three times over the past nine decades: in 1930, due the death of William Howard Taft; in 1942, in the early days of America's involvement in the Second World War; and in 1951, due to what Harry Truman described as "the uncertainty of the world situation".


One way to look at the prospect of Trump headlining the same dinner where he was mocked by Obama in 2011: enduring the dinner and willing to be a butt of jokes while he dishes out zingers of his own shows he's a good sport.

The other view: in a rather cynical town, the idea of Trump sitting through a limp routine like the one delivered by Larry Wilmore at this year's dinner (the comedian called Obama "my n-a" on live television), while journalists pretend to find Trump funny because they know they're on camera, could take Washington phoniness to new depths.

A side note about the dinner: its stated purpose is to raise money for college journalism scholarships. But in recent years, less of the event's revenue has gone to that end. Dubbed the "Nerd Prom", the event is Washington journalism at its worst: media types overly obsessed with food, fashion, celebrity and their self-perceived awesomeness because they get to pose for selfies with the third lead from Hamilton.

This year, the WHCA handed about $77,500 in scholarship money. Maybe Trump skips the event, but has his press secretary show up with one of those oversized checks that Ed McMahon used to hand out, bearing Trump's signature and an amount to more than cover his absence.

Now that would be funny.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.

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