White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks to reporters during the daily news briefing at the White House on Feb. 12. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Media critic

Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary in the Clinton White House, on Tuesday night told current White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that he didn’t “want to put her on the spot.” Then he proceeded to put her on the spot.

Respect for the media, McCurry argued, is “very important.” Which is to say: “They are not the enemy of the people. They are a critical part of the way in which we come to understand what is our government trying to do each and every day,” he said. That was a direct reference to President Trump’s tweeted allegation that certain major media organizations were, indeed, “the enemy of the American People!”

Nor was that the end of the McCurry-Sanders repartee at Tuesday night’s panel discussion organized by the White House Correspondents’ Association and moderated by Martha Joynt Kumar, co-founder and director of the White House Transition Project. Speaking about his approach to the White House briefings, McCurry said, “At the end of the day, we knew that we had to be accountable and we had to go out there and we had to deal with the press every day. You cannot do this job in an environment in which you’re belligerent and saying we’re at war with these people every day in the media.”

Sanders: “I don’t think I’ve ever said anything similar to that.”

McCurry: “No, you haven’t, and you get great credit from a lot of the people here for being amicable and dealing with them. But your president has got to change the way he talks about the media. He has to because it’s critical to how we hold our glue together and how our democracy functions. And he’s creating an environment in which it’s hard for people to do this transaction of getting the public the information they need to have and for us to go out and do the job we have to do, which is to take the hard questions, get beat up by the press, which, I understand, that’s part of the job. But it has to come from some level of respect that there is a critical role there and the president’s comments sometimes are — sort of seem that he doesn’t respect what that critical relationship is about.”

Sanders: “I think that that’s a two-way street, that there is a level of respect that could be, certainly, brought from the press corps as well. I mean, the idea that you’re going to lay the blame at the feet of the president I find to be a little bit far-fetched.” Part of the problem, she continued, was that the media “doesn’t care” about the information that the White House is supplying and that reporters are obsessed with palace intrigue stuff.

A third round was in the offing. Speaking of his time at the lectern, McCurry said the Clinton administration recognized that the media could be hard-edged, “but we did not declare war on them.”

Sanders, perhaps ignoring her boss’s Twitter account: “We have not declared war on the press.”

McCurry: “Yes, you did. Yes, you did and that’s a big, big difference and you need to roll that back. … The president has got to roll that back.”

To the general knock that the president is inimical to the media, Sanders responded with his accessibility. At so-called pool sprays and other occasions, the president has made himself available to reporters for short Q-and-A sessions, though he hasn’t held a full-force presidential news conference in just more than a year. “By the definition of the fact that he spends as much time interacting with the press as he does, I think it’s hard to argue that he isn’t open to answering those questions and being held accountable by the press,” she said.

In sessions such as this one, Sanders has shown herself to be a nimble and intelligent White House aide — plenty nimble and intelligent enough, that is, to recognize that her job, that of serving a free press, is irreconcilable with the impulses of her boss.

Another of Sanders’s gripes: On occasions when she brings in a high-ranking administration official to kick off the White House briefings with a policy discussion, the cable news networks don’t much care about the proceedings. “Because those are very substantive and very policy-driven, it’s interesting that rarely do all of the cable networks cover that first part of the briefing. … The cables will cut away and don’t come back until the fun really begins with the Q-and-A,” said Sanders.

During a subsequent panel of White House reporters, a number of observations surfaced:

  • White House Correspondents’ Association President Margaret Talev, of Bloomberg, remarked of meeting Trump for an interview: “What stood out to me is, first of all, he’s very gracious: Stands up, shakes your hand, says, ‘Come on in, make yourself comfortable,'” said Talev in a chat with moderator Alexis Simendinger of the Hill. Talev realized that after 20 minutes of interviewing, she and her colleague had done only two questions. “At a certain point, we just said, ‘Okay, we need to do a speed round here. Are you up for a speed round?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, sure.'”
  • When Trump said that he was open to talking to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un directly, Talev said, “We were like, ‘What?'” The Bloomberg duo wrote up a bunch of stories based on the interview, including one about the Kim remark: “Trump Says He’d Meet With Kim Jong Un Under Right Circumstances.” Then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer carefully qualified the president’s diplomatic openness.
  • New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker noted that President Barack Obama didn’t like being interrupted. “The problem was, his first answer would be 13 minutes” in a 20-minute interview. Trump is different. “He doesn’t mind being interrupted,” said Baker, noting that interruptions are critical because he tends to drift onto topical tangents. That said, sometimes those tangents produce news, as when Trump mentioned something “in passing” about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his recusal from the Russia investigation. So Baker asked if that recusal was a mistake. News!
  • Baker talked about a bizarre circumstance. “He wanted to call one day because he was upset about everybody thinking he was upset about the Russia probe. And he wasn’t upset about the Russia probe. He really wanted us to know that he was not upset about the Russia probe. So all the people who think he might be upset about the Russia probe, let it be known: He’s not upset about it,” said Baker. He’d never had a call from a president over his two decades covering the White House, and then one day he was doing a segment on MSNBC and his phone rang “again and again.” “I just hit the button. I’m not answering that, I’m on television,” said Baker. It was the president, as Baker discovered after his TV hit, via his colleague Maggie Haberman. Trump never called back.
  • The dangers of relying on background sources have always plagued White House reporting, said Talev, though the complications are more pronounced nowadays. “I think it is important to be a little transparent with the public about the fact that what you’re reporting might be true. It is your best effort to tell people what you believe is going on,” said Talev.
  • Resources: The New York Times White House team of which Baker is a part has grown to six reporters. Is that enough? “No,” said Baker. “It’s like a triage situation,” he said of the challenges of figuring out which stories to do. Talev, of Bloomberg, reported that her organization has taken special steps: “We set it up so that at any hour of the night, whichever editing desk anywhere in the world that’s in charge, if there’s a Trump tweet, it is immediately flagged,” she said. Steve Holland, a Reuters White House reporter, said Reuters has five White House correspondents, though every part of the company’s Washington bureau gets “sucked into” Trump stories. “It touches the whole bureau,” said Holland, noting that Reuters set up a “separate Trump investigation team.”

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