There is perhaps no better artifact of the Trump White House’s fondness for contradiction, nonsensicality and illogic than the document it released Thursday. Featured above, it bears the title “REMARKS BY PRESIDENT TRUMP IN AN OFF-THE-RECORD CONVERSATION WITH PRESS Aboard Air Force One En Route Paris, France.” Under that banner, it provides a whole bunch of quotes from Trump in an off-the-record conversation.
Though the rules of journalistic engagement are often confusing — what does a “background” conversation mean, for instance? — “off the record” has always meant that the comments are not to be published. Yet there was the White House itself, publishing off-the-record comments. It has to be a first. As this blog explained Thursday, these bizarre circumstances resulted from Trump working with his staff — which is rarely a straightforward situation. On the Wednesday flight to Paris, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders proclaimed that Trump’s 70-minute visit with reporters would be off the record.
And so it was.
On Thursday, however, Trump asked New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman why his wide-ranging Air Force One comments weren’t getting any attention. Uh, off the record, Haberman responded. Turns out, then, that there was a misunderstanding or a failure to communicate or something. Sanders reacted by pledging to release “excerpts” of the chat, which explains the document above. Haberman, meanwhile, supplemented the excerpts with some of her notes. For example, her notes unveil this Trump quote about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program:
“It’s a decision that I make and it’s a decision that’s very very hard to make. I really understand the situation now,” POTUS said. “I understand the situation very well. What I’d like to do is a comprehensive immigration plan. But our country and political forces are not ready yet.”
He added, “There are two sides of a story. It’s always tough.”
There are other moments of wonder in the transcript, such as when Trump places the passage of time in grandfatherly context, in regard to China policy: “They have an 8,000-year culture,” said Trump. “So when they see 1776 — to them, that’s like a modern building. The White House was started — was essentially built in 1799. To us, that’s really old. To them, that’s like a super-modern building, right? So, you know, they’ve had tremendous conflict over many, many centuries with Korea. So it’s not just like, you do this. But we’re going to find out what happens.”
Maybe it’s that comment that Trump so badly wanted to see in print. Or maybe it was this warning shot on trade: “Steel is a big problem. Steel is — I mean, they’re dumping steel. Not only China, but others. We’re like a dumping ground, okay? They’re dumping steel and destroying our steel industry, they’ve been doing it for decades, and I’m stopping it. It’ll stop.”
President Trump offers a vivid example of someone on our side of the wall being killed by a falling, 60-lbs. bag of heroin pic.twitter.com/AH4XpV4Y28
— Katherine Miller (@katherinemiller) July 13, 2017
“It’s always good to hear how the president thinks … I thought it was very interesting,” says Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, in regard to the White House’s released comments. “There’s a lot of rich material.”
Count this episode as one additional atrocity committed by the PR/PIO/Press Secretary/Media Handler Industry. These folks are entrusted with guarding the image of their bosses, and way too often they default in the direction of darkness. It’s always safer for these folks to promulgate the highest level of restriction available to them. As Haberman tweeted:
Important to remember that POTUSes – this one and others – often want to talk to media more than handlers want https://t.co/gTpWD8lXqP
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) July 14, 2017
During the far less structured, freewheeling days early in his presidential campaign, Trump was ubiquitous on national media, to the point that his competitors complained that news organizations favored him. CNN boss Jeff Zucker responded that Trump says yes to interview requests, period.
When the news of the off-the-record chat originally surfaced, plenty of media types wondered on social media why White House reporters would agree to such terms in the first place. Bumiller, noting that there’s a history of off-the-record exchanges on Air Force One, offered some logistical context. “When you’re on Air Force One and the president comes back and you’ve got eight hours [left in your flight], it’s kind of hard to walk away,” she said. If the idea is to walk out, she says, “where are you going to go?” The New York Times, she says, approaches these situations on a case-by-case basis. “Sometimes we decide, ‘No, we don’t want to.’ ”
As far as the Paris trip goes, Bumiller notes that there was no access to an embassy event:
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) July 13, 2017
And Trump chose a Chinese journalist to ask a question that, per tradition, would go to a U.S. reporter. On the other hand, Trump reversed the off-the-record order and organized a briefing with homeland security adviser Tom Bossert on the way home. “Access and press coverage of this trip has been a paradox,” says Bumiller.
This week, White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason said that it’ll be up to media organizations themselves how they wish to respond to the shrinking trend at the press briefings. Once events that welcomed video and audio, they’ve become no-camera affairs with embargoes placed on the use of audio. “We’re going to continue pushing for on-camera briefings,” says Bumiller. And that’s not (only) because the New York Times can make use of the video in its Web presentations. “I think it’s helpful to see the press secretary up there. It certainly was helpful with Sean Spicer.”