The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the everyday chaos of reporting on the Trump White House played out for the world to see Saturday

Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, speaks to reporters about President Trump's health Saturday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

The dispatches began routinely enough for an out-of-the-ordinary day, with Pool Report No. 2 from Cheryl Bolen, the Bloomberg News White House reporter on pool duty Saturday.

“Pool took vans over to Walter Reed, arriving at 10:31 a.m. We are attempting to learn the logistics of Dr. [Sean] Conley’s update on POTUS’s health, scheduled for 11:00 a.m., and will advise soonest.” The report, sent at 10:33 a.m., was a typical transmission from the email list that provides regular updates each day on the president’s activities and is, at the most basic level, the primary source for the press to communicate what is happening with the commander in chief.

But as the media continued to wait for the president’s medical team outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the next four hours of reports encapsulated the chaos that has been the defining feature of covering the Trump White House — this time on what might be the most consequential moment of his presidency.

By 11:06 a.m., Bolen’s pool report No. 4 informed the world that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said that doctors were currently seeing the president. By 11:39 a.m., she reported that “Dr. Conley emerged from the double-brass doors of Walter Reed medical center,” adding that her fellow journalists could tune in to TV news directly to hear the president’s physician speak.

At Walter Reed hospital, White House doctor Sean Conley spoke about President Trump the day after he announced he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post)

That was when Conley told the gathered media that the president was “doing very well,” with normal breathing and a cooling fever but a “mild cough, nasal congestion, fatigue.” But he also shocked reporters as well as viewers watching from home when he described Trump as being “72 hours into the diagnosis” — which suggested the president, who announced his diagnosis early Friday, could have tested positive as early as Wednesday. Then another doctor on the White House team referred to a treatment Trump received “about 48 hours ago,” which again would have been well before he supposedly learned he was sick.

They did not answer questions about when the president was first diagnosed, or when he was first symptomatic, and they remained vague about whether he had received supplemental oxygen.

After that is when things really started to get weird. As Bolen explained to The Washington Post later, “an official who was there asked to speak to reporters off the record” and gave them the remarkable quote that the source agreed they could use as “background” information in their reports.

Bolen put it in her Pool Report No. 7, sent at 12:06 p.m. and citing a person familiar with the president’s health: “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”

Journalists, beware: This White House can’t be trusted to be truthful about Trump’s health

Within seconds, Bolen said, she was getting “calls and emails and texts from many, many, many news organizations across the country, asking me if I could identify the source or provide any more clarity.” Because Bolen had agreed not to identify the White House official, she could not — not even hours later, after his identity had been revealed by other journalists.

Reporters raced to clarify the disparity in messages. “I do not know where this quote came from, and why this anonymous person has the authority to contradict the president’s doctors,” tweeted Olivia Nuzzi, New York magazine’s White House reporter, who was at the briefing.

But other reporters who were not bound by the original off-the-record agreement were able to identify him: It was Meadows, as the Associated Press soon reported. Nuzzi tweeted a video showing Meadows briefing reporters after the news conference.

“It was maddening to see the White House doctor come out and refuse to answer basic questions and be clearly spinning,” said Jonathan Karl, the chief Washington correspondent for ABC News, who watched the news conference from home. “And then to see the background quote come out that effectively was diametrically opposed to what the doctor had just said on camera — this is the frustration of covering this White House. You can really take almost nothing that is on the record at face value.”

Karl cited an earlier situation when a White House official, Matt Pottinger, briefed reporters under the condition that they only attribute his comments to a “senior administration official” — only to hear Trump later deny Pottinger’s account and accuse the reporters of fabricating the source.

Hence, Karl’s new rule: “If someone lies to you off the record,” he said, “it is no longer off the record.”