The annual White House holiday party for the news media is usually a placid affair, with cookies, punch and a photo opportunity. The president and first lady pose for souvenir photos amid festive decorations with journalists who normally would be hurling tough questions at the commander in chief.
This year, things will be a little different. And a little awkward.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump will host the party as usual on Friday, but it won’t be the usual party.
CNN, which the president criticized repeatedly and sharply on Monday, said Tuesday it won’t attend. “In light of the President’s continued attacks on freedom of the press and CNN, we do not feel it is appropriate to celebrate with him as his invited guests,” a spokesman said. Instead, the network will cover the event as a news story and report on it “if news warrants.”
In response to CNN’s decision, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered a taunting tweet: “Christmas comes early! Finally, good news from @CNN.”
Tensions between the president and the people who cover him are at a low point, or at least are at the same low point they’ve always been at since Trump began calling the news media “fake” and the “enemy of the American people.” That dynamic seems to have made the event like a dinner among distant relatives who try to keep up a brave face despite despising each other.
Trump ducked out of his last official social engagement with the news media, the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April. He kissed off the dinner in a tweet in February, without explaining why he wanted no part of it: “I will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year,” he wrote. “Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!”
The first couple will attend the holiday press party, Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, confirmed on Tuesday. “The President and First Lady look forward to opening their home to members of the media in the spirit of the Christmas season,” she said in an email.
But that’s all she confirmed. Grisham declined to answer any further questions — such as, will the president address his guests at the party? Will he and Mrs. Trump mingle with the assembled journalists? Will they stick around for photos?
The latter is a big ask, and seems on the face of it unlikely. In years past, the president and first lady have stood for hours as a long line of reporters and their guests gathered for photos with them. The White House gives the photos to guests for framing or for posting on social media.
Which leads to another question: If Trump does stand for pictures, will reporters take one with him?
Yes, said Jonathan Karl, White House correspondent for ABC News. Karl said he intends to attend the party “unless news interferes.” He notes that this year’s party will be held at 2 p.m., close to deadline for network correspondents. Previous parties were held during evening hours.
As for the photo, Karl said, “I have done photos with other presidents and don’t have an issue doing one again.”
Ryan doesn’t know why she didn’t get a golden ticket this year, but she suspects it may be payback for her various run-ins with Trump and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, during the past year. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, for example, Ryan questioned Sanders’s claim to having baked a magazine-perfect chocolate pecan pie. Ryan tweeted: “Show it to us on a table,” which sparked “#piegate,” a debate about presidential credibility.
In an interview, Ryan said, “I’ve given up trying to figure out why” she wasn’t invited to this year’s soiree. “He has the right to invite whoever he wants. He chose not to invite me. I’m good.”
Well, not that good.
“I don’t think I was overlooked,” she continued. “I think they don’t like me. For whatever reason, they have disdain for me.”
Ryan noted that this is first time in 20 years of covering the White House that she hasn’t been welcome at the annual party. She’s attended parties hosted by presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama (she said “no” one time during the Bush years because she was pregnant). And that includes years in which she’s tangled with other press secretaries, including Obama’s first, Robert Gibbs.
It’s not clear whether any news organizations will follow CNN’s lead and boycott the party.
Several reporters from The Washington Post have been invited to the event. Post managing editor Cameron Barr said the newspaper’s journalists can “make their own, individual decisions” about whether to attend.
“Reporters who are invited typically attend when their schedules permit, in recognition of the institution and the honor conveyed on them as representatives of the public,” Talev said. “The Trump administration has decided to continue this tradition this year.”
Talev said she’ll be at this year’s party, just as she was when invited by the Obama White House.