How Trump avoided being asked about his embattled national security adviser
February 14, 2017 12:26 AM
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
White House press secretary Sean Spicer takes questions from reporters displayed on screens using Skype during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1.
By Anita Kumar / McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Since he was sworn into office, President Donald Trump has selected reporters from conservative or friendly media outlets to ask him questions at his news conferences, a pattern that appears aimed at least in part at avoiding touchy subjects.
At his news conference Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump called on reporters from WJLA, the Washington ABC affiliate owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was accused of agreeing to provide favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign, and the Daily Caller, a politically conservative news outlet.
Neither reporter asked Trump about the most pressing questions of the day: Whether he will fire his then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who’s been accused of misleading the White House about his contact with Russian officials before the president took office, and whether he will rewrite his contentious executive order that temporarily halted U.S. immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries before it was blocked by a federal appeals court.
It was the first time in recent years that The Associated Press sent no bulletins from a presidential news conference.
Flynn, whom some news reports accuse of lying to Vice President Mike Pence about whether he’d discussed U.S.-Russia sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, was seated in the front row of the news conference, a few seats down from Pence.
Several other U.S. reporters screamed questions at Trump as the news conference was ending. “The simple question is, does the president still have confidence in his national security adviser?” asked ABC’s chief White House correspondent, Jonathan Karl.
The reaction from reporters and Democrats at the news conference and on social media was scathing.
“Reporters covering the White House who fail to ask the president about the most pressing news of the day should be ashamed of themselves,” tweeted Glenn Kessler, a fact-checker at The Washington Post.
“The National Security Advisor is accused of breaking the law and lying to the public and the Vice President and not one question is asked,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, President Barack Obama’s former senior adviser.
“State Media protecting Trump from Flynn scrutiny,” tweeted Rob Flaherty, a former staffer for Hillary Clinton who now works for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent for the Daily Caller website, said she had asked what Trump considered the most important national security matters facing the United States because it was something she and her Daily Caller colleagues had wondered for the last week. She called it a legitimate question for the president.
“I found out literally … a minute before the conference began that I would be called on,” she said afterward.
Scott Thuman, chief political correspondent for WJLA, asked Trump about his relationship with Trudeau. “Are there any specific areas, during your conversations today, you each decided to perhaps alter or amend your stances already on those sensitive issues like terrorism and immigration?” he asked.
Thuman defended the question, saying he’d also prepared to ask one on Flynn, but decided that others might ask it. “I chose to go a different route and press the two leaders about their contrasting approaches on the critical subjects of terrorism and immigration,” he said. “Nothing was coordinated nor planted or even suggested by White House staff.”
His employer also defended that approach. “The question Scott asked related to Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit and focused on two issues that matter deeply to the local communities we serve: terrorism and international trade,” said Scott Livingston, the vice president of news at Sinclair. “The question wasn’t pre-set, screened nor suggested by the White House.”
In total, Trump has been asked six questions from U.S. reporters during joint news conferences with visiting leaders. Half the questioners have been employees of the Fox News Channel, Fox Business and the New York Post, all owned by Australian-born American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, a Trump friend. The remainder came from the Daily Caller, Sinclair and Reuters. White House press secretary Sean Spicer also has called on more conservative and smaller media outlets at his daily news briefings.
Spicer has also begun taking questions from reporters in remote locales via Skype, frequently giving time to talk-radio hosts who support Trump.
The practice doesn’t guarantee favorable coverage or easy questions, but it does limit questions from that reporters who might ask about things that White House officials, including Trump, may not want to address publicly.
“This is a clear strategy of the White House to downgrade the influence of the mainstream media who might be asking about the future of the national security adviser, about North Korea, by putting these other people up front and limiting the scope of what might be asked,” CNN analyst Gloria Borger said immediately after the Trump-Trudeau news conference. She added, “It’s a way, unfortunately, to quiet the rest of the press.”
Obama also handpicked reporters to call on at news conferences but he called on a greater variety, though he would include more left-leaning media outlets, including The Huffington Post.
In his eight years in office, Obama held 38 solo news conferences at the White House. He did not take any questions from WJLA, The Daily Caller or the New York Post, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a retired professor of political science at Towson University who keeps statistics on presidential interactions with the media. He took questions from Fox News 18 times, according to Kumar.
Obama did not always hold news conferences with visiting foreign leaders, but Trump has had three in just over two weeks.
The others were with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trump is expected to hold a fourth news conference Wednesday alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“He feels he needs the media as a foil,” said Lucy Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who’s now dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. “He loves the attention, and he’ll use the appearances as a way to lob bombs at the press. He enjoys it.”
Trudeau also selected two reporters — Richard Latendresse of Canada’s TVA Nouvelle and Tonda MacCharles of the Toronto Star — who asked about the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, something the president has vowed to do, and whether Trump thought the northern border was secure, given the number of refugees from Syria that Canada has taken in.
Trump did not directly address the question, saying instead that his administration was working hard to “get the criminals out, the drug lords, the gang members. We’re getting them out.”