But the brief Q&A raised its own question: What was Rion doing there in the first place?
Under strict guidelines jointly imposed last month by White House officials and the White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents journalists, access to the cramped briefing room is now restricted to about 15 reporters each day to enforce social-distancing measures amid the coronavirus crisis, and several smaller news organizations can rotate in only once every several days.
And it wasn’t OANN’s turn on Tuesday. Nor on Wednesday, when Rion showed up in the room again — prompting the correspondents’ association to vote to remove OANN from the rotation.
Rion and her employer, a tiny conservative cable outlet known as OANN, appear to have gotten special permission from the White House, in violation of the guidelines. The reasons, and the source of the approval, are unclear, but OANN and Rion have a history of reporting favorably about Trump. Rion herself has pushed conspiracy theories that advance his political interests, such as the unfounded allegation that officials in Ukraine secretly manipulated the 2016 election to help Hillary Clinton. Trump, in turn, has tweeted praise of OANN’s reporting dozens of times.
The White House, in effect, on Tuesday bent the rules — which were designed to ensure the health of journalists, the president and the nation’s top public-health officials — in granting access and a national spotlight to a correspondent from an obscure but Trump-friendly news outlet.
OANN was founded in 2013 by Robert Herring Sr., a millionaire Republican donor from San Diego who made his fortune in the circuit-board business before starting over in media. His son, Charles Herring, president of One America’s parent company Herring Broadcasting, told The Washington Post last week that the channel “is designed to report just the news” and that “we would not describe our news reporting as right-leaning.”
But for a 2017 story, more than a dozen former and current employees described Robert Herring to The Post as a heavy-handed unofficial news director who frequently ordered coverage favorable to Trump. It was the first channel to carry Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches live, and internal emails showed Herring directing that other candidates’ rallies not get the same treatment.
Rion, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, has socialized with the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago, according to photos she has posted on Facebook, and brags on her personal website about having “been aboard the Trump Train from its first week” at the start of the 2016 campaign.
At both Tuesday and Wednesday’s briefings, she stood at the back of the press room — and this, too, was a violation of the guidelines: Reporters are required to occupy a seat, with no standing in the aisles or behind the seating area.
WHCA President Jonathan Karl said he alerted White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham and the White House press office on Tuesday that Rion’s presence was “a clear violation” of precautions that have been strictly followed at the White House for weeks.
“The rules are clear,” said Karl, ABC News’s White House reporter. “If you don’t have a seat in the briefing room on your given day, you cannot be there. The rules are established to protect the health of the White House press corps. We’re abiding by the [Centers for Disease Control’s] guidelines.”
Grisham declined to comment on Wednesday.
In an email, OANN founder and chief executive Charles Herring said Rion’s presence “was appropriate” and that she was invited to attend the briefing. He declined to say who invited her or why.
Trump clearly has been delighted by OANN’s participation, calling on Rion and a colleague, Jenn Pellegrino, who handles weekend shifts at the White House, several times over the past two weeks. “OAN. Very good,” he said after calling on Rion in one briefing. “They treat me very nicely.”
Rion has attracted attention at the briefings with bizarre or heavily loaded questions. At Monday’s session, she compared the number of coronavirus deaths to the number of “children killed by their mothers through elective abortions every day” and then asked the president: “Do you agree with states who place coronavirus victims above elective abortions?”
In a previous briefing, Rion brought up Trump’s controversial use of the term “Chinese virus” by rhetorically asking whether he considered the term “Chinese food” to be racist because “it is food that originated from China?” After Trump amiably replied that he didn’t think it was “racist at all,” she went on to argue that “major left-wing media . . . have teamed up with Chinese Communist Party narratives” to push criticism of the president for using the term.
Rion, who joined OANN in May, has pushed some odd conspiracies. In October, she claimed that former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had had an affair — a story later retracted by OANN. She later traveled to Ukraine with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to produce a documentary series for OANN about Giuliani’s claims in support of Trump’s actions in withholding military aid to the country.
During a special report that aired on the network in mid-March, Rion suggested that the coronavirus came from “a biosafety level-three lab in North Carolina” and that it was then smuggled into China by lab workers and released. She cited as her source a “citizen investigator.” None of the claims have been confirmed.
In her previous pastime as a political cartoonist, she produced illustrations suggesting that Hillary Clinton was behind the unsolved 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich — an evidence-free conspiracy popular in right-wing circles.
On her website, she calls herself “a fierce foe of anything Clinton, of everything Obama, and as a total and unrelenting enemy of academic left-liberalism and political correctness anywhere.” She is engaged to be married soon to Courtland Sykes, an also-ran in the GOP primary for the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Missouri, who briefly went viral that year with a social media rant blasting feminists as “she devils” with “snake-filled heads” and explaining how he expects Rion to prepare for him “a home cooked dinner at six every night.”
This, of course, was before Rion took a job that lately has kept her at the White House past 6 p.m. Neither she nor Pellegrino appear to have had much journalism experience before covering the White House for OANN, a network that typically attracts a fraction of the audience watching Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.
Before joining OANN two months ago, Pellegrino was an intern for Bill O’Reilly, a booker for the home-shopping network QVC, and a production assistant at Fox News, interspersed with sales and business development jobs, according to her LinkedIn profile.
On Sunday, Trump called on Pellegrino twice to ask a question — one of which seemed to please him immensely.
“Mr. President, your approval ratings have been the highest they’ve ever been, as well as the ratings on your handling of the virus,” she asked. “Yet there are some networks that are saying they’re debating whether to carry these briefings live. Do you think there’s a link between the two?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Trump replied. “I know that — boy, that’s a nice question. Thank you very much.”