Under normal circumstances, this might not amount to much, given the dozens of reporters who pack into the briefing room. But starting in March, the coronavirus pandemic prompted strict limits on the number of reporters who can attend each briefing.
Under an agreement between the White House press office and the group representing reporters, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), the limit was eventually set at 14, a number that allows reporters to maintain an appropriate distance from each other. News organizations that want in on the briefings have to wait their turn; the WHCA set up a rotation system, giving each outlet a shot about once every 10 days.
Gateway Pundit and Epoch Times both jumped the line with the White House’s blessing starting on Thursday. They joined conservative cable network One America News (OAN), whose correspondent was initially barred by the WHCA but has been granted an exemption by Trump since April.
In effect, the White House appears to have violated its own agreement to bring in representatives of organizations seen as sympathetic to the president.
Correspondents from the three organizations stood at the back of the small briefing room on Friday. They appeared to have masks — also required by White House rules — though each dropped them to shout questions.
Their presence drew a furious reaction from the WHCA’s president, Zeke Miller, who said in an email, “It is outrageous that the White House continues to invite ‘guests’ to press briefings, putting the health and safety of everyone in the workspace at greater risk. The WHCA’s social-distancing guidelines were crafted in consultation with the White House based on the recommendations of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the nation’s leading health professionals. Trampling on those guidelines endangers the critical work of reporters who have maintained independent press coverage of the presidency throughout the pandemic.”
White House representatives, including press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
All three outlets make no pretense of their support for Trump, and all three have pushed conspiratorial and false stories and hoaxes that seemingly favor him.
During the 2016 campaign, Gateway Pundit, an opinion and commentary blog, published rumors about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s health and false claims about voter fraud. It has also promoted conspiracy theories about the perpetrators of mass shootings. Its founder, Jim Hoft, has said the blog’s mission is to “expose the wickedness of the left.”
Some Trump supporters have distanced themselves from Gateway Pundit. Organizers of a panel discussion staged in conjunction with the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2018 sought to exclude Hoft after Gateway Pundit reported without evidence that students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had been coached to criticize Trump’s response to the mass shooting at the Florida school.
The Epoch Times, based in New York, is part of a sprawling international multimedia organization that claims to be the largest source of news and information for the Chinese community outside mainland China and Taiwan. The outlet, which says it reaches more than 1 million readers, operates a series of web sites and YouTube channels beyond its main site that have reported favorably on the QAnon conspiracy theory and the anti-vaccination movements, according to an NBC News investigation published last year. An Epoch Times spokesperson denied any editorial support for QAnon or the anti-vaccination movement.
“The Epoch Times was present in the briefing room on the invitation of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany,” said Dana Cheng, an Epoch Times spokeswoman. Gateway Pundit did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump has indulged in conspiracy mongering of his own in recent days, falsely suggesting on Thursday that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), might not be eligible to run — a repeat of the “birtherism” lie he deployed for years against President Barack Obama. He declined to say on Friday whether he agreed with the views of a Republican candidate for the House, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has embraced the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory.
OAN’s primary White House correspondent, Chanel Rion, is regularly called on by Trump and McEnany during briefings. The president has frequently praised the conservative cable network, finding it preferable to the much larger Fox News.
At Thursday’s briefing, Trump again called on Rion, who immediately deferred to Emel Akan of the Epoch Times. Akan asked how the United States would respond to the Chinese government’s arrest of Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media mogul, in an apparent crackdown on press freedom. Trump called it “a terrible thing” and then pivoted to a discussion of Hong Kong’s economy, saying the withdrawal of unspecified U.S. “incentives” would make it “very hard for Hong Kong to compete.”
He then ended the briefing.
At Friday’s news conference, Trump called on Gateway Pundit’s representative, Alicia Powe, who asked Trump about his reaction to former vice president Biden taking “credit” for the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates on Thursday. (Biden hailed the agreement as the culmination of “efforts of multiple administrations.”)
Trump replied, “I heard that. That was a beauty . . . And I saw where Sleepy Joe tried to take credit for it. I’ve been trying to figure out how that one works.”
After criticizing the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, he added, “What you’ll see now is that other countries will come into that deal and you’ll have peace in the Middle East. And Biden doesn’t even know the names of the countries I’m talking about.”
And then he ended the briefing again.