ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Joining me around the table, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Molly Ball of TIME Magazine, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and Paula Reid of CBS News.
The relationship between the White House and press is often fraught, and under President Trump it has become especially heated. There was an uptick in his verbal attacks on journalists this week, first at a rally in Florida when members of a crowd yelled a reporter from CNN. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, defended the president’s position.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY SARAH SANDERS: (From video.) We certainly support a free press. We certainly condemn violence against anybody. But we also ask that people act responsibly and report accurately and fairly. While we certainly support freedom of the press, we also support freedom of speech, and we think that those things go hand in hand.
MR. COSTA: And President Trump went after the media again in Pennsylvania on Thursday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Whatever happened to fair press? Whatever happened to honest reporting? They don’t report it. They only make up stories. But they can make anything bad because they are the fake, fake, disgusting news.
MR. COSTA: Strong words, to be sure. And being a reporter means you cover the story; you’re not supposed to be the story. But at times the press is certainly thrust into political storms, and under President Trump it’s with frequency. But most reporters around town are asking: At what cost? Andrea, when you think about that question, what is the cost to the press, to the country?
ANDREA MITCHELL: I think the cost is to democracy, really, and to public confidence in the media, in a fact-based media. First of all, you have a president who often does not tell the truth or misstates or exaggerates. We’ve catalogued that, and that is unfortunate. His spokespeople don’t seem to feel that it’s important to present facts or a fact-based report on the activities of the administration. That’s a problem. But these attacks, I think, have reached a level that is really alarming.
MR. COSTA: But what’s different, Andrea, than Richard Nixon or Spiro Agnew or George W. Bush having concerns about coverage in his own administration or President Obama not liking the press and raising concerns?
MS. MITCHELL: Or Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton. All of these presidents have had adversarial relationships and have been at times angry, uncomfortable, dismissive. I’ve felt the brunt of their anger at times. But the fact is they all knew that they an obligation that was baked into the relationship, the contract, the First Amendment, to have coverage, to have news conferences with better – with more regularity than this president does. And the irony is that Donald Trump grew on the press, on the New York tabloid press in particular and others, and has relationships with reporters. You know this very well from the campaign, from your continuing conversations. The fact is he’s been more accessible in random ways, to reporters wandering out on the North Lawn and talking to reporters for 30 minutes after a Fox News interview. But while he’s accessible in that way, they shut it down when they want to, and he does not answer sustained questions, and you don’t have follow-up questions in the briefing room, and that is a big change.
MR. COSTA: Does he love the press or hate the press?
MOLLY BALL: I think it’s a bad romance. I think at this point it might even be an abusive relationship. I think he genuinely does not like the press, but part of it is this bruised feeling that in his tabloid days he was a player and he got – he did have a certain level of control. He could phone in tips. He could use a false name and get them to print nasty things about his enemies or even plant good stories about himself as if they came from somebody else. So he’s used to a type of media coverage that is based on manipulation, and I think that that is a bad precedent for the way the White House press corps works, the way the political press corps works, which is much more formalized, which – and which expects a president to respect rules, respect roles, and does not allow for that kind of behind-the-scenes manipulation. So that’s why I think you do have him going out for these random encounters with the press, but not accepting the traditional sort of formal contexts for a president to interface with the press and not respecting the traditional norms of, you know, a good-faith effort to tell the truth, which has always been the expectation. And certainly all politicians lie and presidents have been caught saying things that weren’t true, but there has been an expectation that you set out to tell the truth, and if you get caught not telling the truth you’re embarrassed and you correct it instead of persisting and calling names. So I think that it is partly his background has not prepared him well for this role.
MR. COSTA: Most presidents will go after – speaking of history – will go after the other party. They’ll say the other party is out of control, the other party is extreme. President Trump seems to focus on the press, often more than the Democrats.
PETER BAKER: Right. Well, partly it’s a reflection of the weakness of the Democrats. Let’s face it, they’re not – at the moment they’re kind of a leaderless party. Who would he go after who has enough name recognition across the country to be a useful foil? And he does like his politics to be about confrontation. He’s a – he’s a divider, not a uniter, and he likes to have an enemy. He likes to have somebody to go after. So the media is as good an enemy as anybody. You know, he whips up a crowd, it works, it – and we are more of an adversary to him right now than the opposition party. That may change, but he doesn’t have a Hillary Clinton-type opponent to go after, so we are a convenient foil in that regard.
MR. COSTA: What about when you’re on the beat beyond the White House? I know you cover the White House as well, Paula, but is – do you have the same – do you detect from the departments the same level of animus that you detect from the White House sometimes toward the press, or is it a different feeling on the beat?
PAULA REID: So I think when he was elected there were a lot of thought pieces – winter is coming for journalism. And I don’t know if we have any Game of Thrones fans here at the table, but I’ve actually see it to be more of a chaos is a ladder kind of thing. I mean, this is newsiest, leakiest administration in my lifetime. And if you are sometime who is new to the industry, but you are focused on reporting and accountability reporting, and you’re willing to find sources in Treasury and the Education Department, and all these different places that never would have made the evening news, I mean, this has been great for you in terms of the animosity.
I remember being a one-man band traveling the country. I remember people being incredibly hateful and threatening violence at Occupy Wall Street. Or I’d be covering, you know, Obama in North Carolina, and I had a CBS hat on. Somebody was really mad at something Katie Couric had done. This isn’t – doesn’t seem that much – yes, the rhetoric is different, but I think the threat and the animosity has always been there from a certain segment of the population. But now I think there is an enormous audience who wants to know the truth, because they’re clearly not getting it from the White House. And there are incredible opportunities for reporting.
MR. COSTA: That’s interesting. So it’s almost – it’s different sometimes when you’re reporting in Washington versus when you’re at that rally and the president’s going right at the reporters at the rally.
MS. REID: Yes. And I have not been in that situation.
MS. MITCHELL: And that is really frightening, number one, according to all of my colleagues who’ve been in that setting. And the other piece of it is, I think he’s setting us not only as a foil to gin up the anger of the crowd against us. But he’s setting us up to inoculate against whatever the Mueller report is going to be. So he’s going after Mueller and he’s going after the press to try to turn the public against us so that whatever we end up reporting that comes out of this investigation, we’ll already not be believed and not be credible.
MR. BAKER: And something disturbing happened, though, about a week or so ago that took this to a new level, which is so far, for the most part, in the year and a half he’s been in the White House the anti-press stuff has been rhetoric. And it can be scary at some of these rallies where he’s whipping a crowd that’s pretty hostile. But it has been about rhetoric. And you could make the argument that’s corrosive to our reputation. It’s corrosive to a democracy, all those things. But he had not actually taken much action within the White House to impede us from doing our jobs. Remember, Barack Obama launched more leak investigations than all the presidents before him. We hadn’t seen tangible changes in the White House briefing room beyond the hostility that changed what we were doing.
Until about a week or so ago, when they singled out a single CNN reporter and said: You can’t come to an open press event, an event that’s open to anybody from the press, because we don’t like your questions, because you asked questions at a previous event that we thought was impertinent of you. That is a new level that they have taken on it. That’s the beginning of something. Then what we need to watch is what’s happening in the next few months.
MS. REID: But I think one thing that came out of that – in addition to the enormous backlash – was that a lot of people who otherwise have no idea what a pool reporter or what a pool correspondent’s job is now know, oh, that’s why you yell questions and bend over the couch and try to scream at him. So it is very interesting –
MR. COSTA: Explain that. Why is that?
MS. REID: So usually one of us, depending on who the pool person is that day, the president will have a photo op. It’s your job to represent your medium – in my case it would be television. You go in, and you’re the only one who’s going to have the opportunity to ask questions and tell the other journalists what happened in that room. And this particular reporter, she was doing her job. She was asking those questions. And oftentimes, he answers.
MS. MITCHELL: He often welcomes it.
MS. REID: Yeah, he loves it.
MS. MITCHELL: They invite the answers. Well, you know.
MR. COSTA: Exactly.
MS. REID: Yeah, exactly. He’ll answer. And sometimes he makes a lot of news. And I am told, sometimes even more than some of his predecessors. So he loves it. So the fact that they punished her for doing her job in that instance, enormous backlash. And perhaps not the intended effect.
MR. BAKER: He wants questions. He just didn’t want the questions she was asking.
MS. REID: That day, yes, exactly.
MR. COSTA: Maybe the reason for the change is the new White House Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine. He comes in, used to work at Fox News. He was involved with blocking CNN’s Kaitlan Collins from going to that press event. Have you heard anything in your reporting about what Shine’s up to? I mean, we know publicly the president’s talking to Rush Limbaugh, talking to Sean Hannity, talking to Bill Shine.
MS. BALL: He clearly – I mean, he has always had a feel for the right-wing press. And he’s always had a relationship with Bill Shine, as well as Hannity and others, that – but I think the overriding theme of everything that Trump is doing lately is an increasing indulgence of his instincts. Instincts that many people around him don’t support and have tried to rein him in on. Whether you’re talking about trade, whether you’re talking about immigration, whether you’re talking about the way that he treats the press.
These are things that – and The Post actually had a great story on this – that he has muttered about this to people around him for a long time. Can’t we take out that person? Can’t we get them to stop? Can’t we disinvite that person? Until now, there hasn’t been someone around him – to your point – who had said, OK, boss, we’ll do that. And that’s what changed, perhaps, with the presence of Bill Shine, or perhaps just with a president who seems to be increasingly sort of throwing off the restraints and just doing what he feels, whether or not it is in line with the – sort of the norms and rules of the presidency.
MR. COSTA: One last thing before we go. Andrea Mitchell has an anniversary this week. She’s been covering the news for 40 years for NBC News. Class act and it’s an honor to have her on Washington Week from time to time. Congratulations, Andrea, on all your success and your friendship for so many reporters.
MS. MITCHELL: Thank you. It’s great to be here with this family.
MR. COSTA: Thank you so much, Andrea. We really appreciate it.
And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week podcast that looks at Paul Manafort’s trial.
I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.