At a working lunch with Baltic leaders in the Cabinet Room on April 3, President Trump held forth on a number of foreign policy issues, including the caravan of migrants heading north to the U.S.-Mexico border. When he felt he’d said enough, he issued the standard cue for the assembled press to pack up. “Okay. Thank you all very much,” said the president.
At that, the voice of a White House press assistant boomed into the audio. “Thank you,” said the aide, whose job includes ushering quote-hungry journalists — part of a “pool” that gets momentary glimpses of meetings and ceremonial occasions — out of the room, away from the president and his guests.
Wrangling correspondents, however, has proven complicated in the Trump White House. That’s because of Trump, who is forever listening for his kind of questions. If a reporter lands on a topic dear to him, he’ll go for it, frustrating efforts to clear the room of all those alleged “fake news” purveyors and so-called enemies of the people.
“Mr. President, it seems as though the caravan is starting to irritate you,” asked a reporter at that April 3 event. “No, the caravan doesn’t irritate me,” responded Trump at the start of a one-minute answer. Once he finished, he signaled that it might be time to wrap things up.
“Thank you all very much,” said the president. At that, again, the press wrangler launched another round of thanking and ushering. But it wasn’t over yet. A reporter tossed out a question about the Baltics. He bit. “We have great respect for the Baltic States,” said Trump, before yet again signaling it’s time to go. “Thank you. Thank you very much, everybody.”
The wrangler echoed, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thanks, everyone. Thanks.” Oh, but wait — what about Amazon and The Washington Post and the sending of packages? “When you take a look at the Post Office — you take a look at the Post Office, and the Post Office is losing billions of dollars and the taxpayers are paying for that money because it delivers packages for Amazon at a very below cost,” said Trump. And what about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt? “I hope he’s going to be great,” responded Trump.
Nine minutes after Trump issued his first “thank you,” the wrangler succeeded in herding the press pool out of the Cabinet Room. “Thanks, everyone. . . Come on, Steve. Come on, [inaudible]. Thanks, guys. Thanks, everyone. Time to go. Let’s go, guys.”
Wrangling the media at the White House: It’s a thanking job.
Numbers bear out the challenge of urging the media to get lost in the age of Trump. According to Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, Trump did 170 short question-and-answer sessions through April 29, as compared to 55 for President Barack Obama at the same point in his first term. (Obama bests Trump, however, in interviews — 187 to 95 — and solo press conferences — 13 to 1.) In these formal settings, it turns out, Obama just wasn’t as talkative as his successor.
One way to view Trump’s engagement with the media at so-called “pool sprays”: “He has little discipline when it comes to responding to questions that he’d like to answer,” says Kumar. The following would be another way to look at it: “President Trump is someone who likes to speak directly to the American people. This administration has been transparent from the beginning and the president often takes questions in pool sprays and on his walk out to the helicopter,” says White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters, whose duties include overseeing the crew of four “press assistants.”
Obama’s reticence in the pool sprays stemmed from an insistence on being fully briefed about the day’s events, according to former wrangler Peter Velz. In September 2015, for example, news of Rep. John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) planned resignation as House speaker broke amid a lot of activity at the White House — namely a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to the 29-year-old Velz, Press Secretary Josh Earnest told the media that it might have to wait for an answer from Obama on the Boehner news, which he’d barely been able to digest. Posing the question at a later bilateral news conference, said Earnest, would be more effective than during an earlier pool spray. At that pool spray, recalls Velz, there were no shouted questions.
At the subsequent bilateral news conference, sure enough — Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev asked the president about the Boehner developments. He gave an extensive response, noting that he’d chatted with Boehner himself in between all the diplomatic work. Asked about Obama’s cold shoulder to pool-spray sparring, Earnest tells the Erik Wemple Blog: “In President Obama’s mind, part of it was certainly discipline but part of it was his awareness of his strengths — that the rowdy back and forth with the press corps was not the environment where he was best. He was best where he could give a long, thoughtful answer and, frankly, where people could hear the long, thoughtful answer.”
Under Obama, a press wrangler had the muscle to make the day of a journalist. Amid the Ebola crisis in October 2014, Obama met at the White House with nurse Nina Pham, who’d contracted Ebola while treating a patient. She recovered. Prior to the Obama-Pham meeting, Velz fielded a request from a photographer. “‘We need to get a photo of the president hugging the nurse,'” recalls Velz, who replied that he couldn’t arrange such a moment. What he did, however, was resist the initial directive to shoo the media out of the room, keeping them there long enough to capture the eventual hug.
“Peter, rightly, didn’t just bring them in for 30 seconds,” says Earnest. “He gave them an opportunity to see a little more of the interaction and that included, at the end, a hug.” Christine Anderson, a wrangler in the Clinton White House, sums up the tensions: “No matter which president you serve, it’s a delicate balance serving two masters who often have very different priorities.”
Representatives of the large television news operations sometimes telegraphed their plans for pool sprays, says Velz. They commonly sent producers into the sessions; but when they swapped out a producer in favor of an anchor or other prominent personality, Velz sensed a question was coming. “We would just sort of prepare ourselves and get a little closer to an on-air talent and try to drown out the noise,” says Velz. “We’d try to out-shout them by saying, ‘Thank you, pool.’ Not in any malicious way; that was just the game.”
Asked about the latitude of the wranglers under Trump, Walters tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “Our press assistants do an incredible job of moving the protective pool in a respectful manner in and out of pool sprays . . . ensuring the process is seamless for everyone involved.”
Let’s introduce the White House media herders. Giovanna Coia is a former intern for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and a 2016 graduate of Catholic University. Caroline Sunshine is a former Disney star and former intern in the Office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.); prior to coming on board full-time, she served as a White House intern (a position for which she applied through the website’s portal). Rachel Craddock has worked in the Illinois statehouse and on Capitol Hill. And Katie Price is a makeup specialist who pitches in with wrangling duties.
This crew starts the work day around 7 a.m. and may not leave until late at night, the intervening hours crammed with managing the media’s day passes and hard passes to the White House; writing media advisories and press releases; handling the schedules of top officials in the communications office; escorting journalists from the gate to the briefing room; not to mention wrangling. “Any time the president is on camera, the wrangler is facilitating that and working directly with the press,” says Velz.
Whatever their working conditions, the wranglers are making a stentorian contribution to the sound of contemporary U.S. democracy. After discussing issues on Wednesday in the Oval Office with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Trump said, “Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.” He then appeared to mouth the words thank you. Appropriately cued, a wrangler went into activist mode: “Thank you. . . we’re leaving . . . thank you . . . We’re leaving now . . . Time to exit, right now.”
As those instructions came roaring across the audio feed, the president continued engaging, a bit. “We’ll see what happens,” he said about the pre-summit turbulence with North Korea. Mayhem enveloped the president. All at the same time, White House correspondents were shouting questions; the wrangler was expressing a mix of appreciation and urgency; and an aide to the Uzbeki president even joined in, verily screaming something about “Uzbeks all around the world as well.”
One detail on the scene: As the wrangler declares, “We’re leaving, everyone — thank you,” the camera pans (see the 7:02 mark) to attendees who are most assuredly not leaving the Oval Office. “The press corps in a pool spray has their job to do, and that’s why the press corps . . . will invariably ignore the wranglers when they’re saying, ‘Thank you,'” says another White House reporter. “It’s just the way it goes. You can’t afford to do that because if you do that and you’re among the group that is ushered out of the Oval Office while the president is answering the question, you haven’t gotten that on tape . . . you don’t have that,” says the reporter. “And that’s why it’s important to stay in the room till everyone’s gone.”
Critical, in fact: This president is just as likely — perhaps more likely — to make news with a muttered comment toward the end of a pool spray as during a formal appearance. For example, that remark at the end of the April 3 session about Pruitt — “I hope he’s going to be great.” — was picked up by numerous outlets working to understand the state of play between the White House and a top appointee. Moments after a wrangler urged reporters at a May 9 Cabinet meeting to get out, a reporter asked the president whether he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. “Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it,” said Trump.
At an April 9 meeting with military leaders, Trump made some remarks, then said, “Thank you all very much, thank you.” As the wrangler began wrangling, Trump scanned the room for a good question. After a few seconds, he got one: “Why don’t you just fire [special counsel Robert S. Mueller III]?” Aha! The president was so eager to answer that he repeated the question: “Why don’t I just fire Mueller? Well, I think it’s a disgrace what’s going on. We’ll see what happens,” he said at the start of his canned rant about the investigation.
Does Trump’s ambivalence about closing out pool sprays frustrate the wranglers? “We are all here to serve at the pleasure of the president,” says Walters.