Fifth in a regular series on the activities of White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. Read the rest of the series.

There’s a loophole built into off-the-record agreements. They bind journalists to refrain from publishing the contents of a conversation; they do not, however, prohibit discussing those contents with others who were not party to the off-the-record conversation.

That wrinkle is critical to understanding why White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham is so mad about what happened on Tuesday. Following a long tradition, the White House invited various TV anchors — Chuck Todd and Lester Holt of NBC News, Norah O’Donnell of CBS News, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum of Fox News, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, among others; CNN wasn’t invited — to an off-the-record lunch for a preview of the State of the Union address. Not long thereafter, details of the session leaked on the Daily Beast.

Grisham was irked, so she blasted out this email to the anchors (boldface added):

Today, the President of the United States welcomed you to the White House and spent almost two hours answering so many questions that he didn’t eat his own lunch (1). He graciously gave you a couple of items on the record and then spoke frankly, honestly (2), and most importantly in good faith that it was off the record. Our only agenda was to give you an idea of what the President was going to say to the country in his third State of the Union Address.
It was so disappointing that not even an hour passed before we were inundated with inquiries, as someone or perhaps a few in the group chose to leak out most of what was said. What’s worse, some of the details were things the President specifically asked you not to share.
To me, it is the height of hypocrisy that a press who bemoans the perceived lack of ethical behavior in this Administration, so brazenly violates its own ethical standards. The media cries for more access but cannot adhere to a simple agreed upon standard of off-the-record, which allowed your colleagues who were not in attendance, to break the news for you.
Call me naïve, but it is my belief that old-fashioned accountability should be applied to a press corps that has sadly failed to hold itself to its very own standards. Accountability is, after all, one of the five core principles of journalism. “We hold the powerful accountable” is a mantra that many in the press righteously shout from every news desk in this county. I ask – who holds all of you accountable? (3)
President Trump has been the most transparent and accessible (4) President in modern history, giving unfettered access in a variety of ways. When the President of the United States invites such esteemed journalists to the White House for an off-the-record lunch and conversation on such an important day, it is beyond disappointing and frankly shameful that some in the group chose to immediately walk out of the building and break its promise and in the process, a core principle of ethical journalism.
To those of you who attended and participated in the spirit for which it was intended, thank you very much.
In closing I must say that for once I wouldn’t mind if this email leaked, but somehow I doubt anyone will want to admit to this complete lapse in integrity. (5)
Sincerely, Stephanie Grisham

1) By disclosing the compelling detail that the president didn’t eat his own lunch, Grisham is violating the off-the-record agreement. Shame on her.

2) This would have been the first frank, honest discussion that Trump has held in his adult life.

3) The Erik Wemple Blog, that’s who!

4) Yes, the president has been accessible, as this blog has reported. “Transparent,” however, is another matter: It requires honesty.

5) Clever!

What the president says is a matter of tremendous public interest, meaning that if there’s a way for his comments to wriggle onto the Internet, they will. For a long time, presidents have sought to spin the media and other folks via off-the-record discussions. And for a long time, journalists not included in those discussions have sought to secure details of those discussions. As this blog has recounted, Peter Baker, a New York Times White House correspondent, has developed a specialty in exploiting these moments. He famously undid at least a couple of President Barack Obama’s attempts at off-the-record manipulation.

So what happened Tuesday is nothing new or remarkable. In his talk with the anchors, Trump said off the record what he says on the record. “Trump made sure to criticize his Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell for declining to lower interest rates further,” reads the Daily Beast writeup. “Asked about the exploding trillion-dollar deficits his administration has created, the president claimed that lower interest rates will allow him to reduce the red ink in his second term.”

How many times has Trump cheap-shotted Powell?

Accordingly, TV anchors are better off tending to their dry cleaning than attending off-the-record sessions with the president. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen puts it more sharply:

In an email to the Erik Wemple Blog, Grisham said, “The SOTU luncheon has been off the record for more than 20 years, meant to preview the President’s remarks so evening newscasts and TV can be informed. It is done as a courtesy, so outlets can be prepared for the evening ahead. It is off the record so that the speech itself can remain undisclosed until the President speaks.”

Boiled to its essence, the event — whether under Trump or any other president — is a prestige stop for sleek TV-news anchors. They have lunch at a long table in the White House, chat about politics and come away feeling all the more important. And if the White House strategy prevails, those anchors internalize the president’s thinking and sympathize with his predicament.

If Grisham finds off-the-record discussions so hard to police, one option might be to switch to an on-the-record footing. Come to think of it, that’s approach for the formal press briefings that the White House, under former press secretary Sarah Sanders, abandoned on March 11, 2019. Grisham routinely fields requests to relaunch the briefings, which is the animating idea behind this series. Since she wasn’t holding briefings — the centerpiece of a press secretary’s duties — we wanted to know what she was up to.

Every time we’ve asked her for such information, Grisham has responded promptly. On Thursday after 2 p.m., she passed along this accounting:

Today I previewed his remarks with some press outlets.
Did a TV hit.
Met with the President.
Met with some staff.
Met with the COS.
Worked on logistics for today’s event.
Attended his remarks.
Met with the President again.
Participated in the Kenya visit.
Participated in a Coronavirus Task Force pre-brief.
Answered email, phone calls, and texts.
Tweeted things.
Worked on press logistics for some upcoming travel.
Worked with some press on interview requests.
Have not eaten yet.
Considering a 3rd cup of coffee.
Currently searching for some aspirin.

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