Donald Trump gave the Washington press corps quite a scare last week. After meeting with President Obama at the White House, he left the nation’s capital for New York City—without telling anyone in the media. It was actually the second time he’d ditched his press corps in one day.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer called Trump’s treatment of the White House Press Corps “truly unacceptable.” Jeff Mason, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned” about the president-elect’s decision to leave the press behind.
On Tuesday night, he did it again, skipping out to a New York City restaurant without telling the reporters whose job it is to cover him.
This might not seem like anything too important. But it is. Trump is undoing some of the most basic traditions that both presidents and the reporters who cover them have upheld for decades.
Trump’s lack of adherence to the time-honored media rules of the road shouldn’t have been surprising. The Freedom of the Press Foundation recently called him "an enemy of press freedom unlike any we have seen in modern presidential history."
During his campaign, he was vocal about his frustrations with legacy news outlets, regularly accusing them of bias, threatening to sue them and vowing to change libel laws to hurt them. He took away the press credentials of top news organizations, including the Washington Post.
He’s also singled out individual reporters for what he perceives as unfair coverage, opening them up to widespread online harassment from his base.
This pattern could easily continue during Trump’s presidency. In the process, he could wind up cutting off access to his administration to an unprecedented degree. And unfortunately for the press, there won’t be much they can do about it, because traditions can be ditched in a heartbeat.
Since the dawn of modern American professional journalism, reporters and presidents have engaged in a relationship of mutual dependence. Politicians need journalists to get their message out, and journalists need politicians for a steady supply of news.
The White House Correspondents’ Association has maintained what has been essentially a hundred-year old gentleman’s handshake keeping the particular system of presidential coverage in place.
Its "Practices and Principles" asserts its desire to maintain "the broadest possible access by the press to cover the full range of activities that the President and his or her administration undertake in performing the public's business."
Other statements reflect the expectation that the “press must have the ability to question the President in person on a regular basis” and that “the White House press pool always accompanies the President when he or she travels outside the White House grounds.” It’s that norm that Trump broke with last week.
The White House press corps is far from perfect. But it’s still a significant institution that keeps watch on the president, and Trump’s relationship with the White House press is still a big deal.
Without regular access to the president, it becomes even more difficult to know how the White House is reacting to major events. Journalists would have more trouble monitoring how the president spends his days, making it harder for the public to actually know what the president is doing. The traveling group of reporters that accompanies presidents wherever they go also wants to do this in case something happens to them on the road.
It’s partially thanks to the current president, though, that Trump feels so free to place limits on the press. President Obama has been a master at subverting the mainstream press. He was extremely choosy about who he talked to, favoring friendly outlets and audiences (think "Between Two Ferns"). In 2015, a Politico magazine survey found that 80 percent of press corps members at the time had never had a one-on-one with the president.
Instead, Obama spoke directly to the public through social media. He was the first president to have had an official videographer. And remember that live Hamilton performance at the White House? That was streamed though the White House's own feed, not any TV channel.
It’s not hard to imagine the things Trump could do with similar tools. And some are expressing concern that his deep ties to white nationalist site Breitbart–whose chairman, Steve Bannon, is now Trump’s chief adviser—could turn it into little more than a state-run media outlet.
Obama is leaving the White House press corps in a vulnerable situation—and he’s turning the keys over to a new president who is a master of reaching past the media and cares little for its coverage. We may have the perfect storm for a president who remains unaccountable to the press—and the public.
So what are the odds that Trump will ignore these time-honored traditions? They might be stronger than pessimists think. After all, the idea of regular White House press coverage has existed at least as long as there’s been the full-time occupation of professional journalist.
The WHCA traces its roots back to the 1890s, when reporters “stood outside the White House fence to seek meetings with the president and to question visitors as they left the grounds.”
As John Dickerson has chronicled in Slate, the institution of the White House press conference was launched by Woodrow Wilson in 1913. It was attended by 125 members of the press, and he called another one a week later.
Yet, just as this privilege was given, Wilson showed how easily it could be taken away. He stopped giving press conferences for a year after journalists turned hostile in the run-up to World War I, and he talked openly about limits on press freedoms.
As the decades wore on, presidents were always thinking of ways to bypass the press. That's one of the reasons John F. Kennedy was so eager to bring television into the mainstream of regular American news consumption for political information.
Still, presidents have kept the press around because they’ve needed them, no matter how frosty the relationship might get. And even though George W. Bush and President Obama have placed much tighter controls on access than their predecessors, they haven’t messed with the basic notion that the president’s daily doings should be transmitted to the public. Trump, though, is already signaling that he has no respect for these precedents—something which will become much more important when he actually enters the White House.
One key part of the White House press operation that all presidents have kept in place is the credentialing process, which determines just who gets to be in the group that covers the White House.
White House press credentialing reflects the odd cooperation between an independent press and the administration. It’s also a scary point of vulnerability that Trump could easily use to ensure that he is only surrounded by favorable media outlets each day.
Credentials can matter, a lot. Trump likes to revoke them. For months during his campaign, outlets such as the Washington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, the Des Moines Register, the Huffington Post, and Fusion parent company Univision were summarily placed on a blacklist for what he regarded as their unfavorable coverage.
So could Trump actually block unfavorable reporters from the White House? It might be harder to take credentials away from permanent members of the White House press corps, who receive credentialing through their peers in the Senate Press Gallery.
To get this “hard pass” that provides daily access to the White House, though, the administration must sign off on the background checks of applicants, a process that could very easily be corrupted by a crew looking for reasons to keep certain members of the press out.
This has been done before. Robert Sherrill, a reporter from The Nation who was seen as hostile to the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, was blocked from access on the grounds that he posed a physical threat to the president.
There's nothing to stop Trump from doing something like this again.
Moreover, the White House has much more control over who gets a “day pass,” for journalists requesting temporary access. The second Bush administration showed how shills for pro-administration coverage can exploit this.
For over two years, Jeff Gannon, a pro-Bush blogger for what was essentially a fake news outlet, was given regular day passes to cover the White House. At the time, the White House said that it had handed the passes over because it didn’t want to be in the business of deciding who counted as a journalist. Members of the press generally agreed, and the WHCA chose not to push for changing the credentialing process.
Thus, the process for a day pass remains both remarkably open and susceptible to foul play. To test it out, I applied for daily press credentials for Fusion. All I had to do was input the name of the publication and upload a letter of introduction.
One can see a Trump presidency—or any presidential administration, for that matter—taking advantage of the openness that digital journalism affords to would-be members of the profession, and cleverly stuffing the press corps with partisans—no matter how shoddy their journalism.
This all adds up to a recipe for potential disaster when it comes to coverage of our next president. The only thing maintaining the current system is a historic dependency on the president’s message being heard. We have seen that to this incoming president, at least, this may no longer be necessary. And there's no telling what Trump could get up to with so few eyes on him.
Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.