An eye-opening sentence has appeared in several important news stories about the Trump administration in recent days: The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Not “the White House declined to comment” or “We’ll get right back to you.” But no response at all when reporters have asked for the White House’s take on developments.
At a time when President Trump has declared the news media the “enemy of the American people,” the official silence from the White House has left some journalists wondering whether the non-responses are mere indifference or a strategy to discredit journalists by pointing to flaws after publication instead of beforehand.
For its part, the White House — which, yes, responded to this story — blames reporters for not trying hard enough to get the White House’s side of the story.
“We have an unbelievable track record of being responsive to the media,” press secretary Sean Spicer said in an interview. Some reporters, he said, don’t follow established procedures for getting a response or do the “bare minimum” on deadline, leaving officials little or no time to reply.
“Where’s the story or question about how many reporters fail to write or tweet without ever calling or writing” for official comment, Spicer asked.
Variations of the White House-did-not-respond line appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s revelation last week that members of the intelligence community have been withholding information from President Trump out of concern that it will be leaked; in a New York Times story about the early outlines of Trump’s federal budget plans; and in an Associated Press report Friday morning that the administration had drafted an executive order to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to help “round up” undocumented immigrants.
Shortly after the AP story appeared, Spicer told reporters traveling on Air Force One with the president that the Guard story was “100 percent not true . . . It is irresponsible to be saying this.” He also said, “I wish you guys had asked before you tweeted.”
Except that AP said it did exactly that but never heard back.
AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton provided emails from the AP’s White House reporter, Julie Pace, to Spicer seeking comment. The emails are time-stamped at 10:27 a.m. and 3:29 p.m. on Thursday, roughly 24 hours and 19 hours before AP posted its story. Pace received no reply. Easton also said the news organization also had no luck with the Department of Homeland Security. “AP had the draft, tried hard to get comment and went with its story when it seemed reasonable to assume we were being stonewalled,” she said.
The White House later acknowledged the authenticity of the draft memo but said the proposal is not being seriously considered.
Seeking official comment is a fundamental obligation for news reporters. Doing so is a matter of fairness since it gives officials a chance to give their side of a story. It also makes stories more accurate; official sources often flag mistakes and provide additional information that changes or strengthens a story before publication.
In his press conference Thursday, however, Trump asserted that the news media was perpetuating “fake news” by failing to seek comment. “I never get phone calls from the media,” he said at one point. “How did they write a story like that in the Wall Street Journal [about the intelligence community] without asking me, or how did they write a story in the New York Times [about the Trump team’s chaotic adjustment to the White House], put it on the front page?” (Spicer also took issue with the latter story, after the fact.)
Both publications said they made extensive efforts to get the White House’s take. Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus said its reporters spoke with a White House official and the spokesman for the Office of Director of National Intelligence while compiling its article. “Both provided comment for the piece,” he said. “They chose not to put President Trump on the phone.”
Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, who wrote the story about Trump’s transition, have been unusually public about their frustrations with Trump’s spokespeople.
“The last 14 emails I have sent to his press secretary have gone unanswered,” Thrush wrote last week on Nytimes.com.
In the same forum, Haberman, wrote, “I email his press office almost every day, and Sean Spicer and [assistant press secretary] Sarah Huckabee refuse to respond to my emails.” She also tweeted, “Taxpayer[-funded] press office that has hours to devote to focusing on palace intrigue stories and profiles does not respond to routine q’s.”
Haberman said via email that Spicer and his staff “may just be swamped” and thus unable to respond in a timely fashion. “The White House press office is historically a very demanding job, but you’d need to ask Sean or Sarah” why they have been nonresponsive. Some sources, however, suggest that Haberman and Thrush are getting a cold shoulder because of stories the White House disputed.
A less charitable theory — one Spicer disputes — is that the White House is playing a passive-aggressive game: Not responding furthers Trump’s effort to undermine the media by letting false assertions stand in news stories in order to decry them later.
“There’s no excuse for going silent with the media simply in order to castigate their credibility for issuing factually true reports,” wrote conservative blogger Ben Shapiro in response to the AP’s story on immigration. “No wonder nobody knows what to believe anymore.”
Spicer says the White House press office has distributed a staff contact list for reporters four times through the White House Correspondents’ Association and “it isn’t my fault reporters won’t follow it.” (The WHCA said it sent the list to its members just once.)
Some journalists say the best way to get a response from the White House is to actually be there; Spicer and his staff are often accessible in their West Wing offices, they said.
But even that offers no guarantees. Last Monday, as the crisis surrounding national security adviser Michael Flynn crested with Flynn’s resignation, reporters staked out Spicer’s office. They eventually were rewarded with a statement from Spicer and a brief appearance by Trump after a two-hour wait.