The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The White House smears a CNN correspondent

The Trump administration blocked a CNN correspondent from attending an open media event. That's an assault on press freedom. (Video: Erik Wemple, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta received a warning back in December 2017. It came from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during one of those ceremonial signings that media folks routinely turn into brief Q-and-A sessions with the president, commonly referred to as “pool sprays.” “She warned me that if I asked the president a question at this pool spray … that she could not promise that I would be allowed into a pool spray again,” Acosta told colleague Wolf Blitzer at the time.

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) issued a bureaucratic statement at the time: “It is longstanding practice for reporters to ask questions of the president during events like the one today, and it is at the president’s discretion to decide whether and how to answer those questions. It is up to news organizations to determine which journalists they assign to represent them in the pool.”

On Wednesday, the White House appeared to take the next step. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins was barred from a press event for reasons that don’t jibe with a free press. “I was blocked from attending an open press event here at the White House, because the White House did not like the questions I posed to President Trump earlier in the day during an event in the Oval Office with the president of the European Commission [Jean-Claude Juncker],” said Collins in discussing the situation with Blitzer on CNN’s air.

Here’s the transcript of the questions that Collins placed before the president:

COLLINS: Did Michael Cohen betray you, Mr. President?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you everybody.
COLLINS: Mr. President did Michael Cohen betray you?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We’re done, we’re done.
COLLINS: Mr. President are you worried about what Michael Cohen is going to say to persecutors?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let’s keep going.
COLLINS: Are you worried about what is on the other tapes, Mr. President?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep going. Thank you everybody.
TRUMP: Thank you very much.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep going. Thank you everybody. Let’s go. Come on guys. Thank you very much.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let’s go. We’re done, we’re gone. Let’s go.
COLLINS: Why has Vladimir Putin not accepted your invitation, Mr. President?

Trump didn’t bite on the questions, a relatively unusual stiff-arm. As noted previously in this space, Trump has done more than three times the number of these short Q-and-A sessions than President Barack Obama did through late April of their second year in office, according to research compiled by Martha Kumar. Our current president, as it turns out, is easily baited.

CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins said she was barred on July 25, from an open White House media event after officials objected to her questions. (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

It says something that Trump didn’t take Collins’s questions; it says something more that she was omitted from a subsequent event with Juncker — open to media — in the Rose Garden. A statement from WHCA President Olivier Knox suggests that the association will be more pugnacious about these sorts of situations: “We strongly condemn the White House’s misguided and inappropriate decision today to bar one of our members from an open press event after she asked questions they did not like. This type of retaliation is wholly inappropriate, wrong-headed, and weak. It cannot stand. Reporters asking questions of powerful government officials, up to and including the President, helps hold those people accountable. In our republic, the WHCA supports the prerogative of all reporters to do their jobs without fear of reprisal from the government.”


Fox News President Jay Wallace — whose employer has never been tight with CNN — declared in a statement, “We stand in strong solidarity with CNN for the right to full access for our journalists as part of a free and unfettered press.”

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

The White House, for its part, sought to clarify that this was not a spat about questions:

To address the thing about how Collins “refused” to leave the session upon request: Such a “refusal” could well be attributed to just about any pool representative who has filed into an Oval Office meeting. That’s because Trump’s long-suffering press wranglers start shouting “time to go” at the very moment that the formalities conclude — and then Trump proceeds to drag things out by taking a question here, a question there. Reporters have pretty much learned to tune out the cries of the wranglers in hopes of securing answers to their shouted questions.

It’s a form of mayhem stemming directly from the personal dysfunction of the president himself. The dim view of these circumstances is that he’s not disciplined enough to make firm decisions about how many questions he’ll take during the pool sprays; the rosy view is that his willingness to listen for a question that he wishes to answer serves as a loud and raucous form of governmental transparency.

Here’s the video of the Juncker pool spray. Check the end for shouting:

According to the minutes from the WHCA’s May 24 board meeting, ABC News’s Jonathan Karl “noted the WH wranglers speaking loudly to usher the pool out of Oval Office and other events, often speaking over POTUS himself. [New York Times photojournalist Doug] Mills said he had raised this with staff.” See? Even the wranglers — White House employees no less — are disrespectful to the president, to use the reasoning applied to Collins’s conduct.

As Collins told Blitzer, she was summoned to the office of Bill Shine, the recently hired deputy chief of staff for communications, for something of a disciplinary chat. With Sanders in attendance, Shine told Collins that she “would not be invited to an open press event here in the Rose Garden moments later at the White House because they thought the questions that [she] posed to President Trump were inappropriate and inappropriate for that venue.”

Fancy the irony here: Aides for a president who respects no norms and virtually no one is providing a lecture on appropriate conduct to a journalist trying to get her questions answered. It matters not whether Trump ordered this act of creeping authoritarianism; he has been decrying CNN as “fake news” for months and months, pummeling it at rallies and on Twitter, the better to prepare his followers for eventualities just like this one.