Trump considers removing press corps from the White House

The US president-elect is considering sending the White House press corps into exile

Speaking in Trump Tower, New York, US President-elect has accused opponents of releasing 'fake news' about him

 

Donald Trump’s full-court press on the US media has extended from questioning their integrity (“the dishonest media”) and their credibility (Buzzfeed, a “failing pile of garbage”; CNN, “fake news”) to, in recent days, floating the idea of removing the White House press corps from the White House.

Already skittish at how the president-elect’s threats against the media might materialise into actions under President Trump, White House reporters reacted with alarm to weekend reports that the incoming administration may seek to remove reporters from their long-time home in the West Wing, seeing it as an assault on the freedom of the press.

The prospect of the incoming Republican president breaking with decades of protocol that stems back to the presidency of William McKinley (1897-1901), raises questions about Trump’s willingness to submit his administration to public scrutiny and the 24/7 glare of the media he so loathes.

Evicting the White House press corps would be further evidence of his intent to upset the status quo and cast the media as an enemy of his incoming administration, as it was during his run for office.

The White House Correspondents’ Association, which promotes greater access to presidential administrations, has long resisted any consideration of moving the White House press corps from its confined quarters in a former swimming pool room and its annexes.

But the disdain of Trump and his staff leaves the press facing its biggest challenge.

Relocating press

Esquire magazine first reported on Saturday, quoting senior officials on Trump’s transition team, that the incoming administration was considering relocating the White House press corps to the White House Conference Centre across Pennsylvania Avenue on Lafayette Square, or to a space next door to the White House in the Old Executive Office Building, both a short walk away but, crucially, out of the West Wing.

Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, framed the proposal as more of a logistical measure, dealing with the practicalities of accommodating such large numbers of reporters interested in covering the Trump presidency.

He referred to the thousands of media requests to cover his press conference in New York last week – his first in 168 days – an event that was capped at 400.

Breitbart News, the conservative website championed by the “alt-right” for its racist and sexist content, was, according to the Associated Press, the only media organisation to have a reserved seat in the front row of Trump’s press conference, which sums up where his administration’s media allies lie.

Trump’s incoming chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was until this year the website’s executive chairman.

Another official offered a more political reason to Esquire behind the move against the media.

“They are the opposition party,” the official said. “I want ’em out of the building. We are taking back the press room.”

The press came out swinging, with the White House Correspondents’ Association objecting to “any move that would shield the president and his advisers from the scrutiny of an on-site White House press corps” and pledging to battle to hold on to the briefing room and access to administration officials.

Days after Spicer threatened to throw CNN reporter Jim Acosta out of the press conference as he attempted to ask the president-elect a question, Trump’s spokesman sat down with Jeff Mason, the Reuters White House correspondent who is president of the reporters’ association, for two hours on Sunday to discuss the nascent administration’s proposal.

Spicer did not back away from the plan, though other senior officials appeared to play it down.

Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, said on Sunday that “the only thing that’s been discussed is whether or not the initial press conferences are going to be in that small press room”.

The media remain sceptical, particularly in light of the Trump team’s desire to shake things up and grant access to the White House to talk radio hosts and conservative bloggers (who can attend press briefings by applying in advance, but who do not have semi-permanent press passes).

A sign of how far the battle lines are drawn with the press could be seen from a memo that one candidate to be Trump’s press secretary proposed to members of his transition team in November.

According to an article in the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column, the candidate suggested that journalists who attend the White House more than once a week should be screened for drugs no more than twice a year – and that they should be refused their press credential if they refuse.

“I support whatever security measures are recommended by the Secret Service,” Spicer said.

Swimming pool

The White House press corps has been covering daily briefings and presidential press conferences from a cramped room in the West Wing since 1970.

Responding to the growth in television news coverage of the White House, president Richard Nixon converted Franklin D Roosevelt’s former swimming pool room into a press briefing room.

In 2000, the room was named after James Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot and gravely injured in an assassination attempt on president Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Today, the room has 49 seats (seven rows of seven) with the main TV news networks, wire services and national newspapers occupying assigned seats in the front rows.

There are about 200 members of the press corps and the White House Correspondents’ Association controls seat assignments.

Reporters with coveted White House “hard passes” – a renewable two-year permit – have access to the room every day, with staff based there full-time working from narrow offices in the back.

In the past decade, the White House has granted more and more hard passes to online media outlets.

All other media, including bloggers and videographers who post contributions to YouTube, must apply for day passes that are relatively easy to secure once cleared by the Secret Service after they receive personal details (social security number, country of citizenship or date of birth) the day before.

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