President-elect Donald Trump is rumored to be plotting the exile of beat reporters from the White House press room—provoking a collective panic attack among Washington’s media elite, and prompting Beltway denizens to wonder: If the rumor proves true, what, if anything, can the Fourth Estate do about it?
“This is a time of institutions reinventing themselves, and we in the media have to do that, too,” Ron Fournier, a former White House correspondent for the Associated Press, told The Daily Beast.
“Look, there’s no way the people are being served if they kick the people’s representatives out of the People’s House, and we’ll have to consider doing things other than protesting and whining. We’ll have to think about what we can do to bring some pain to make our point.”
For more than four decades since Richard Nixon’s administration, credentialed reporters from print and broadcast outlets have operated from assigned desks and cubicles behind the White House briefing room—built over an indoor swimming pool used by presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon Baines Johnson—and journalists have toiled in cramped cubicles in the West Wing since the Washington Star’s William W. Price invented the White House beat during Grover Cleveland’s presidency in 1896. (Previously, according to National Journal’s George Condon, who’s at work on a history of the White House press corps, journalists barely covered the presidency, and if they did, it was from Capitol Hill.)
With only a few interruptions since William Price (for instance, a months-long renovation of the press area during George W. Bush’s administration), reporters have enjoyed physical access to the White House, interacting with senior policymakers and watching personages come and go.
At the start of Bill Clinton’s administration, journalists protested bitterly when then-communications director (now ABC News chief anchor) George Stephanopoulos ordered the door to the upper press room—and his office—shut, a departure from longstanding tradition; the decision was reversed when David Gergen joined Team Clinton in an effort to smooth over testy relations with the media.
Fournier, associate publisher and editor of Crain’s Detroit Business, was the AP’s White House reporter covering Presidents Clinton and the second George Bush.
For the coming Trump administration, he suggested that journalists can band together to boycott White House press briefings or take other punitive measures.
“For example, instead of begging and asking and trying to shame Donald Trump into turning over his tax records, how can we force him into it? What if news organizations say ‘We’re not going to interview you until you turn over your tax returns’? Maybe the media can start being as activist as the politicians they cover in getting their jobs done.”
Those, admittedly, would be extreme and possibly unrealistic responses, given journalists’ competitive instincts and reflexive resistance to group action.
And they might also be ineffective, given Trump’s proven ability to communicate to Americans via social media—on which he boasts more than 40 million combined followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—and his penchant for granting exclusive access and interviews to friendly media outlets.
Trump’s much-discussed, much-derided joint interview with the Times of London and the German publication Bild—an hourlong session reportedly engineered by Times owner and frequent Trump phone buddy Rupert Murdoch—was a case in point.
Tory MP and Murdoch pal Michael Gove, the prominent Brexit advocate who conducted the interview for the Monday edition of Murdoch’s paper, posed afterward with the president-elect for a sycophantic snapshot, with both men giving Trump’s patented thumbs-up gesture.
At least the German journalist, Kai Diekmann, kept his hands by his side during his own closeup with the great man.
Yet Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times and a former White House correspondent herself, argued that regardless of the pitfalls and challenges of covering President Trump, “The press will still do its job.”
“If the press is cut off that way, information is going to be a lot harder to get, and holding the administration accountable is going to be a lot harder to do,” Bumiller told The Daily Beast. “That said, if they should do this, it’s not going to stop the press. If they believe that cutting off access at the White House is going to result in better press about the White House, they’re misinformed.”
Still, Trump has thrived by shattering norms of behavior, political and otherwise.
As a New York real estate mogul in the 1980s, he didn’t hesitate to launch eviction proceedings against troublesome tenants, even allowing their apartments to fester with leaks, rats, garbage, and dust in his aggressive campaign to push them out.
Thus it comes as no surprise if, as reported by Esquire magazine’s Peter Boyer, the president-elect is thinking about evicting irksome journalists—members of a profession he has regularly denounced as “dishonest…disgraceful…scum”—from their 120-year-old home in the Executive Mansion’s West Wing.
"They are the opposition party," Boyer quoted an anonymous senior aide to the president-elect, one of three senior Trump transition officials who confirmed that they’re seriously considering relocating the press corps to the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, or possibly the White House Conference Center, across Pennsylvania Avenue on Jackson Place—in either case, the logistical equivalent of Baltimore.
"I want 'em out of the building,” the aide said. “We are taking back the press room."
Sean Spicer, Trump’s incoming White House communications director and press secretary, told Boyer that "there has been no decision" about a proposed move, but acknowledged that "there has been some discussion about how to do it."
That, plus Spicer’s pointed failure to deny the possibility of such a relocation in multiple television appearances since Boyer’s piece was published over the weekend, has been enough to send Washington journalists to battle stations.
“It’s an important principle for a free press that reporters who cover the White House have access to advisors around the president and very specifically to his press team and his press secretary,” said Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents Association. “Those individuals sit in an office in the West Wing, to which we now have access, and it is critical to us to maintain that access to report the news.”
On Sunday, in the aftermath of Boyer’s report, Mason met with Spicer face to face for two hours to voice his concerns.
“I made clear that the WHCA would view it as unacceptable if the incoming administration sought to move White House reporters out of the press work space behind the press briefing room,” he later wrote in a statement. “Access in the West Wing to senior administration officials, including the press secretary, is critical to transparency and to journalists’ ability to do their jobs.”
In an interview, Mason said Spicer was noncommittal about letting the White House press corps stay put. “I think he listened to me, and I listened to him, and we both had some concerns, and raised concerns and we listened to each other,” he said.
One concern was apparently prompted by the incident at Trump’s press conference last week, when CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta repeatedly demanded a chance to ask a question and the president-elect, angered by CNN’s reporting on a classified intelligence briefing in which Trump was informed about a scandalous dossier concerning his alleged misbehavior during a trip to Moscow, refused Acosta’s questions and accused CNN of disseminating “fake news.”
Afterward, Spicer told Acosta that if he behaved “disrespectfully” again toward Trump, he would be summarily ejected.
“Sean expressed concern that journalists adhere to a high level of decorum at press briefings and press conferences,” said Mason’s statement. “I made clear that the WHCA would object, always, to a reporter being thrown out of a briefing or press conference.”
Spicer didn’t respond by deadline to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
Fournier, meanwhile, said there might even be a silver lining to the banishment of reporters from the West Wing, encouraging journalists to spend less time at canned briefings and more time cultivating sources, ferreting out documents and focusing on digging for what’s really going on inside the Trump administration.
Former AP White House correspondent Terry Hunt, who spent 25 years covering presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bush the younger, predicted that “reporters will stick together particularly if there is an aggressive White House that is trying to intimidate or vilify the press.”
Tongue in cheek, Hunt added: “It’s going to be incredible to watch. It’ll be a beautiful thing. I hope it’s not sad.”