As a candidate, President Trump pilloried Hillary Clinton for not engaging with the media. His own White House, though, has taken a sharp insular turn in recent weeks.
The barring of CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from a Rose Garden event Wednesday afternoon was perhaps the most pitched moment in a relationship that has long been uneasy. While the White House has done things like momentarily banning cameras and live audio from daily press briefings, its action Wednesday was clearly in response to specific questions Collins shouted that it didn't like.
This is merely the latest example of the White House essentially withdrawing from its traditional interactions with the media.
As CNN (and former Washington Post) reporter Abby D. Phillip noted Wednesday on Twitter, the White House has essentially stopped filling reporters in on Trump's talks with foreign leaders, including his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has scaled back the number of “daily” press briefings to about one per week, and doesn't even provide background information for major announcements — such as when Trump announced a new trade “deal” with the European Union at that very same Rose Garden event. As I wrote Wednesday, we have very little idea what exactly such a deal entails — just as we have basically no idea what concessions Trump allegedly scored at a NATO summit in Brussels two weeks ago.
The New York Times also reported this week that Trump fumed when a TV that first lady Melania Trump was watching on Air Force Once was tuned to CNN rather than Fox News. And on Thursday morning, the White House curiously opted not to have Trump take a helicopter to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, which would have allowed reporters to shout questions at him. It cited bad weather; Thursday morning in Washington was downright beautiful.
Any of these, in isolation, could be dismissed as a coincidence. But it seems that a White House that was already not terribly keen to work with the media has decided to crawl inside its bubble and work around the press more than ever before. Collins, the video clearly shows, was doing what basically every reporter does after what are known as “pool sprays” — shouting questions in the hope of getting a president who doesn't do many news conferences to address something that isn't part of a planned announcement. And Trump often obliges.
It's really difficult to take this out of the context of what happened at the Putin summit in Helsinki and at a pool spray. In Helsinki, the two American reporters who were allowed to ask questions wound up getting Putin to admit that he favored Trump in the 2016 election and making Trump's true doubts about Russian interference blatantly obvious. Then, last week, shouted questions after a pool spray resulted in Trump saying he doubted Russia was still interfering in the United States. This, again, ran counter to what the U.S. intelligence community says. The White House tried to argue that Trump wasn't responding to that question, but that doesn't seem to have been the case.
As that episode shows, the White House's problem is less with the fairness of journalists, and more that Trump doesn't seem to have message discipline. So rather than let him do his own thing at pool sprays, they are scaling them back and excluding a reporter who asks questions they don't like. Rather than try to argue that Trump wasn't extremely deferential to Putin in their meeting or explain why he expressed a willingness to turn U.S. diplomats over to Russia for questioning, they don't say anything about the summit. Rather than try to substantiate his major announcements to a clearly (and rightly) skeptical press, they don't even try.
Partisans who think the media aren't fair to Trump will probably cheer this more withdrawn and adversarial approach. The upshot, though, is that we don't have any real back-and-forth over the day's most important issues. And that means that both the president and the media will be in the dark about what the other is up to.
It's a tacit admission that a president who once complained that his opponent couldn't handle the press isn't able to handle it himself.