On May 25, Politico published a piece that greatly displeased the White House. Its lede: “President Donald Trump has left American journalists in the dark during key moments of his nine-day foreign trip, delaying readouts, keeping reporters at a distance and not holding news conferences — which has allowed him to avoid having to answer to controversies at home.”
Written by Politico reporter Tara Palmeri, the story bashed the White House communications operation for not providing information to reporters traveling on Trump’s Europe trip. At one point, alleged Palmeri, White House spokespeople Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders were “spotted” hanging out at a cafe during a key meeting with Trump and European Union dignitaries — while their counterparts from other countries were on the case and cranking out “formal statements within minutes of the meeting’s conclusion.”
It was that piece of journalism, we’ve come to learn, that prompted a strange request from the White House to Jeff Mason, a Reuters reporter and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA). “In one case, and I won’t say the name, but in one case, I was asked to on behalf of the WHCA to release a statement criticizing a reporter’s story,” said Mason last week at a conference. “And I said ‘No,’ because that’s not what we do and that’s not something we would ever do.”
At that time, Mason declined to provide further details, though things changed Sunday morning. Both Mason and Palmeri were booked on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” hosted by Brian Stelter. Asked about the situation, Mason explained that he’d declined to offer specifics out of respect for the “privacy of the reporter and of that conversation.” On her side of things, Palmeri said, “Well, I’m not surprised because I had heard from my editor that [the White House] had threatened to try to remove me from the White House Correspondents’ Association, which they don’t have power to do. They’re an independent association. And they were upset because I wrote a story that was completely factual, that over the course of the trip, the president had not given a press conference. That is plain and simple,” she said.
In her CNN comments, Palmeri said of her story: “And after that story came out about midway through, we started getting more access.” Mason threw cold water on the notion that there was any connection between the story and access to White House officials. Brad Dayspring, a Politico spokesman, told this blog, “Tara was speaking about her experience on the trip. Shortly after her story was published in POLITICO, several days of on-record briefings with Gary Cohn and HR McMaster followed.”
On the matter of WHCA expulsion, Mason said that the White House had never approached the organization with such a request. As to the threat of doing so, White House press secretary Sean Spicer emailed, “No that never happened – as Tara herself noted, it’s a private organization (and FWIW I have no clue whether she is a member in the first place). Jeff was correct that it never occurred.” Spicer also said that Mason was “correct to push back on her claim that her story changed press access on the trip.”
In March, Spicer referred to Palmeri as an “idiot with no real sources” in an email exchange with a Breitbart reporter. Of all this stuff, Politico’s Dayspring says, “Tara is a tenacious reporter who brings unique insight and experience to the White House beat. Her tenacity seems to have captured the all-consuming attention of the White House Press Secretary.”
Whatever the particulars, Mason has clarified that the mission of the WHCA is to push the White House for maximum levels of access — and not to render judgment on the work of other journalists. The specific request from the White House, he said, was to “release a statement essentially defending the White House. And that would have been, in my view, the same really as criticizing the reporter and criticizing the story and I said no. That’s just not something that we do. That’s not a role that we play.”
Consider that all of this went down about four months into Trump’s time at the White House. Four months, that is, of hammering away at the media, rapping them as the “enemy” of the American people, calling various outlets “fake news,” and on and on. And yet it had the gall and naivete to believe that the extremely boundary-conscious president of the WHCA would betray his principles and bail it out.