I left for one hour.
The early Friday morning White House show had been inconsequential and uncharacteristically dull. The highlights? Kellyanne walked by outside after giving a speech at CPAC. President Trump flew back from his visit to CPAC on Marine One. A television technician yelled “Get to the chopper” in his best Arnold impersonation.
Meanwhile, I had a scheduled meeting with Congressman Jamie Raskin regarding a National Shield Law for reporters. This meant missing the daily press briefing, but in so much as the day before Sean Spicer told me it was probably going to be a small gaggle in his office since nothing much was expected, I figured it was one briefing I could miss.
I guess I should’ve stayed for the fireworks. Steve Bannon and President Trump’s outcries against the media at CPAC came home to roost as Spicer’s gaggle got out of control, feathers got ruffled and the White House denied access to several media outlets.
According to the New York Times, “Reporters from The Times, BuzzFeed News, CNN, The Los Angeles Times and Politico were not allowed to enter the West Wing office of the press secretary, Sean M. Spicer, for the scheduled briefing. Aides to Mr. Spicer only allowed in reporters from a handpicked group of news organizations that, the White House said, had been previously confirmed.
Those organizations included Breitbart News, the One America News Network and The Washington Times, all with conservative leanings. Journalists from ABC, CBS, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Fox News also attended.
Reporters from Time magazine and The Associated Press, who were set to be allowed in, chose not to attend the briefing in protest of the White House’s actions.”
By the time I returned from Congressman Raskin’s office, the junior White House staffers, all very affable and friendly were left dealing with the media while Spicer and other senior staffers remained hunkered down in Spicer’s office for several hours.
Meanwhile, on a desk outside of Spicer’s office a large hand-made valentine apparently made by school children stood proclaiming “You’re awesome Sean!” and “No longer do we trust the TV news people . . . can the president have his own station 24/7? We love him and his whole team.”
According to members of the pool who made it into the gaggle, it wasn’t much better on the inside during Spicer’s Friday briefing. The meeting took about 40 minutes and Spicer began to yell at some of the reporters there – according to one of the reporters who attended.
That reporter blamed a junior staffer for the SNAFU that led to CNN and others from entering Spicer’s office for the briefing.
But a look at who was let into the meeting and who was kept outside speaks directly to an agenda many feel the president has regarding the media – divide and conquer.
The media, which often in the past has eaten its own, seems ripe for division.
When Glenn Thrush of the New York Times got shut down in a press briefing earlier this week he had to rely on someone else to ask and follow up on a line of questioning he started.
Someone did pick up the gauntlet. And when media outlets found themselves on the outside looking in on Friday Time magazine and the AP refused to go in protest.
Perhaps the press is learning.
Mark Smith, a veteran AP reporter retired later Friday afternoon and after 20 years at the White House and many more working for the AP, he found himself being toasted by his fellow reporters and a bit worried about the future.
“I think we still have adequate institutional memory,” he said in reflection. “But I do feel a bit like I’m leaving the ramparts in the battle.”
Covering this White House one quickly understands Smith’s concerns. Each day is a study in swimming through quicksand. What was good on Monday, may not play on Tuesday and if you leave the White House for even an hour, anything and everything can hit the fan.
With a good segment of the population still convinced President Donald Trump walks on water, at least according to that one big valentine in the upper press office, there continues to be a problem of perception and reality for the President and the press.
Was Friday's press gaggle merely a mistake exacerbated by an overzealous staffer who overreacted and kept out reporters deemed the enemy? Or did the press office make an initial misstep compounded by the lateness of the day on an uncharacteristically warm February afternoon? Was it vindictive or unintended? Did the press overplay the situation since there are often pool situations for reporters in the White House for many other events? Is the President out to get us all?
While we all ponder the presidential torture apparently coming our way, cooperative reporters gladly shared the information from the gaggle with their brethren.
So, whatever occurred, keeping certain outlets out only served to drive the most disparate competitors closer together. That is important because there are signs this administration is every bit as strident as candidate Trump was during the campaign. And that does, on first glance prove itself to be a cause for concern of those who value the First Amendment. Imagine the jaded and cynical reporters who are now watching the media working together. Those who would preach a total boycott of future press briefings should take note - that's probably what some inside the administration want. Far from boycotting, working together would seem to be the more prudent move.
One young reporter outside of the afternoon gaggle said he has his future to think of and did not want to lose the respect of his peers – hence he shared everything he had regarding the press briefing.
Smith can therefore retire with a certain amount of comfort for the fate of the rest of us holed-up in the old swimming pool in the White House west wing. We won’t end up like the defenders of the Alamo.
The press will not go gentle into that good night – despite of whatever threats made by the President, Bannon or the actions or misdeeds of staffers.
That much is becoming very clear. It may be a bumpy four years ahead – but the press isn’t going anywhere.
Even if somebody leaves for just one hour.