White House Press Corps, Press Secretary Talk Trump at GWU

An all-star cast gathered in George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium on Monday evening to talk about the Trump presidency with (almost) one year in the history books. What has happened within the first year? What were some of the big moments? What’s in store for the future?

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush, Fox News’ chief White House correspondent John Roberts, American Urban Radio Networks’ White House correspondent April Ryan, Yahoo! News’ chief Washington correspondent Olivier Knox, Bloomberg News’ White House correspondent Margaret Talev and GWU Political Science Professor Sarah Binder attempted to answer those questions in what felt like a “White House Press Briefing After Dark.”

Moderated by Frank Sesno, director of GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs, the result was an entertaining discussion on the evolution of Trump as president during his first nine months on the job.

Year One: Trials and (Lots of) Errors

When discussing the president’s progress in the first nine months, the members of the press corps held back no punches — and the press secretary returned the favor.

Both Thrush and Roberts pointed out running issues in the administration that stemmed from the election. For Thrush, Trump’s lack of policy focus could be seen from a mile away, equivalent to a “404 Error” shown on the policy pages on his campaign website.

Now that Trump is faced with attempting to get policy goals through Congress like tax reform, perhaps he’s adapting to the dynamics and demands of the presidency, Thrush suggested.

“Our reporting has shown that he was uninformed on basic facts on health care,” said Thrush. “Sources can attest in good faith that he is unprepared on these policy issues. On taxes he’s been better … but not on health care or the budget. He’s also not as studious as previous presidents [on policy].”

For Roberts, Trump’s ongoing problems with a Republican-majority Congress speak to the fracturing of the GOP as a result of the 2016 election. The repeal-and-replace effort regarding Obamacare was “where the rubber met the road, but they choked.”

“[Trump] can’t rely on members of his own party. Democrats will stick him with a knife in the back, Republicans will stick him in the front,” said Roberts. “It’s down to just a handful that are blocking him in the Senate.”

In response to congressional difficulties, Sanders defended the president, saying that Trump took a “bigger role of engagement” with Congress on health care “towards the end,” and claimed that “you’re seeing that with tax reform. He’s more forward-leaning, engaged … and working directly with Congress.”

Knox followed up on Trump’s claim to “drain the swamp,” claiming that the president’s inability to separate himself from Washington lobbyists/insiders and his “systematic” use of executive orders to roll back Obama-era policies was the opposite of what he preached.

Ryan said she saw the White House “floundering” on the management of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), a point which Sanders countered by saying that the mismanagement of HBCUs “isn’t a problem created overnight, but we’re moving the ball forward and opening up the conversation.”

Sanders highlighted some important moments on the international front to speak to some achievements coming from the Trump White House, from relations with “key partners” in Asian countries to clamp down on North Korea to Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia to “combat terror” and serving as a “big transition point for the administration.”

With the ups and downs of this administration, Thrush claimed that it was clear that Trump was “learning on the job,” and it was time for him to just admit it.

Press Corps vs. Comms: An Important Adversarial Relationship

Perhaps the biggest change that occurred between the White House Press Corps and the White House Communications Department was the ousting of Sean Spicer and the subsequent promotion of Sanders as press secretary. All the panelists from the press corps seemed to agree that the briefing room had changed immensely since Spicer’s ousting.

“Not one person has peddled me a story about you like some officials did in the past to undermine Sean Spicer,” said Knox, speaking to Sanders. “Credit to you, I think.”

The panelists also agreed that the briefing room, and covering the White House in general, has become relatively less chaotic since the first months of the presidency.

“The temperature is down, compared to the opening months of the administration,” Talev said. “The briefing was chaos at the beginning, and people had restricted access. Spicer was definitely more confrontational behind the podium.”

Sanders then reflected on her role, dealing with the fluctuations of politics and controversy, and adjustments she’s made to increase transparency of the press office.

“The No. 1  job I have is to give the best and most accurate information that I can at the moment,” said Sanders. “Some days I do it better than others, some days are less tense than others … I spend 20 minutes at the podium every day to get answers directly to the American people, but I also spend 15 hours in the office answering emails, making myself available to the press corps.”

But Sanders had her fair share of gripes with the press, saying that questions were often asked “from a place of accusation rather than asking for more information,” and complaining about the media’s obsession with covering anything but substantive policy.

“It’s like you’re asking me, ‘You’re a horrible person, please tell us why’… I think there’s a difference between a political tone and a hateful tone,” Sanders said.

Not surprisingly, the press corps hit back, saying that an overtone of Trump’s political power was acting in opposition to the press.

“Trump battling the press is the centerpiece of his entire political strategy,” said Thrush. “He performs best with opposition … This is what his political career is dependent on. The press is his omnipresent opposition”

“The press is a foil, but [Trump] has also tapped into that deep well of resentment that the press is unfair to all Republicans,” said Roberts.

When members of the press corps were asked how they go about reporting on a controversial tweet, or report on more policy-based issues, they underscored the importance of how the president communicates.

Reporters treat every tweet like an official statement, and Sanders lauded the president’s tweets as a way of directly communicating with the American people. Having a live read on what’s on the president’s mind during any given hour of the day is truly unprecedented.

Given all that, the press corps doesn’t often have much of a choice when it comes to covering his tweets.

“We just cover it all [tweets and policy issues],” Roberts said. “When you’re drinking from a fire hose, you just have to get a really absorbent mop or sponge. The heat is what rises. That’s the way it is.”

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