Why Trump flashed a smile and thumbs-up with reporters

The president-elect surprised a group of reporters with an impromptu off-the-record conversation Sunday, sparking a debate about how to cover this very different president.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Journalists sit outside of the Mar-a-Lago estate where President-elect Donald Trump attends meetings, in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 20, 2016.

Donald Trump’s relationship with the news media has long been fraught. Bashing reporters with epithets – “scum,” “sleazy,” “liars” – was part of his standard campaign stump speech. Even in victory, the verbal beatings continue. And his rally-goers relish it, some joining in the taunts.

So when a photo went up on Twitter Sunday night of a smiling, thumbs-up President-elect Trump, surrounded by about 20 national reporters at his Florida estate after a 30-minute off-the-record chat, eyebrows were raised.

Here’s the man who has promised to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue the media. And here, too, is the man who hasn’t had a press conference since July 27. And yet members of the press corps were willing to meet with him off the record. The reporters could acknowledge the meeting took place and post pictures online, but not reveal the content of the discussion.

The optics, as they say, weren’t great – including the images of food and drink that were also tweeted out by former Politico reporter Mike Allen. 

But the context is important. First, the event at Mar-a-Lago was a gathering with Trump staff – including campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus, top policy aide Stephen Miller, and spokesman Jason Miller. Trump himself – and wife Melania – stopped by, according to pool reporter Adrian Carrasquillo of Buzzfeed. 

Second, it’s not unusual for White House and campaign reporters to talk to aides “on background” (the information can be used, but not for direct attribution) or off the record. Occasionally, they get access to the principal.

President Obama, for example, goes to the back of Air Force One a few times a year to chat off the record with the reporters flying with him. In 2015, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, hosted an off-the-record dinner with campaign reporters.

Would it be preferable for these interactions to be on the record? In many ways, yes. Major media push hard to put as much press interaction with the president and top aides on the record as possible.

But it’s the White House – and the White House-to-be – that calls the shots. Having a discussion off the record allows the principals to speak more freely. For reporters, off the record may be the only way to enjoy this kind of access. It allows them to get a feel for the people they cover, as people.

In the case of Trump’s “drop by” with the press Sunday night at Mar-a-Lago, it appears the reporters had no advance warning. They faced two options: stay and chat with the president-elect, or boycott. Florida reporter Marc Caputo of Politico, who was not there (nor was this reporter), presented the dilemma in a tweet.

“Trump shouldve had a press conference or 2 by now, but are reporters supposed to foot-stomp & refuse to talk to him off record as a result?” Mr. Caputo wrote.

In the eyes of many, yes. Pushback from the world of media criticism has been intense.

“So much for the prospect of a new journalistic golden age,” writes Kyle Pope, editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

The question, says New York University journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen, is whether White House reporters think life under Trump will resemble business as usual. He clearly does not.

“I don’t know why anybody in the Washington press corps or in your job would assume that normal relations between the press and the White House are going to be a part of the Trump administration,” says Professor Rosen. “Why would you think that? Almost nothing that happened during the campaign was normal.”

Indeed, there’s been speculation about whether Trump will allow the press to continue to operate out of the West Wing, or whether he will continue the current practice of allowing a small contingent of reporters to fly on Air Force One.

The press corps covering the Trump transition has been pushing for access, and to build connections to the incoming Trump administration. The Trump team holds daily press calls, and coordinates with a rotation of reporters known as the “pool,” which covers Trump’s activities every day. But until Trump names his White House communications team, other questions remain unaddressed.

All of this represents the “inside” track of covering a White House. But there’s also the outside track – the legions of reporters who will investigate and report on Trump’s business interests, the activities of his adult children in both his administration and the family business, and the doings of government agencies in the Trump era.

The Watergate scandal, it’s worth noting, was uncovered by metro reporters, not White House reporters.

Brian Stelter, media critic at CNN, notes this inside-outside dynamic in his commentary on Trump’s off-the-record chat with reporters Sunday. It’s the “inside” element that bears reexamination, he says.

“I think the question for newsrooms is whether Trump is ‘different’ in a way that necessitates different reporter-source dynamics,” Mr. Stelter writes.

“If you think the answer is no, then enjoy the party,” he concludes. “And if you're not sure, well, you're not alone. Here's my prediction: This question about Trump is going to be a dividing line in the coming months/years…”

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