Both Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, had one-on-one conversations at mid-week at the Newseum event “The President and the Press, the First Amendment in the First 100 Days.” They shared the agenda, if not exactly the stage, with numerous folks their employer has categorized as the “enemies of the American people.” That included White House correspondents from a wide range of media, from the New York Times to Breitbart. Or, you might say, from top to bottom.
It was a sedate and reasonable iteration of Spicer that showed up for his interview with Greta Van Susteren of MSNBC. So much so that one later panelist, Glenn Thrush, White House correspondent for the New York Times, questioned what the Newseum might have put in his coffee to calm things down. Likely it was not a coffee additive so much as being humbled a day after his inappropriate comment about Hitler and chemical weapons. Not surprisingly, Spicer’s first act was to apologize, an apology that in fact came across as sincere (as opposed to say the United Airlines’ CEO’s third-day when all else fails apology). It was “not a very good day in my history.” No, it wasn’t.
“As long as we have a healthy and robust media, I’m fine,” Spicer commented. His main complaint was on focus, which he said, “should be on what we are doing right or wrong to make the country better,” adding “the proportion of house intrigue vs. policy is out of whack.” No argument there. Yet in a country that has just elected a reality TV show host as president, I don’t know if you can blame the White House press corps for initiating the personality/celebrity focus of the news.
Conway announced herself as a “very pro-press person.” Then she unloaded a laundry list of complaints. She contends that the media is providing incomplete coverage, saying there are considerable accomplishments of this administration which are not getting any ink or air time. She quipped, “people literally say things that just aren’t true,” a comment that brought more than a few chuckles from the audience. A less lame interviewer (Michael Wolff of the Hollywood Reporter) might have chosen at that moment to ask her about the “Bowling Green Massacre.”
Conway charged the press covering the Trump administration with “presumed negativity.” Later Cecilia Vega of ABC News responded to that saying “I’m presumptively cynical but that’s my job” adding that you have to be cynical considering “this President’s relationship with the truth.” Addressing the journalist-heavy audience, Conway said, “If you were part of the very large group of people who covered the campaign and got it wrong, don’t keep getting it wrong.”
The White House correspondents had some axes to grind themselves. Thrush noted that the tone was set on the very first day after the inauguration when, after criticizing the assembled reporters for their comparisons of the size of the Trump and Obama inauguration crowd, “Spicer shouted at everybody and refused to take questions.”
Jim Acosta of CNN said “the President has an unhealthy attitude toward the press. On the campaign trail he called us crooks and thieves. He’s doing real damage to the first amendment in this country.”
Bret Baier of Fox News, who was the moderator of the panel of White House correspondents, commented, “he was elected saying he’d be the bull in the china shop. He’s got the bull part down.”
One of the more interesting questions Baier asked the panel was whether they think Trump can be successful. Each said yes…but. Here’s some of those buts.
- Acosta: “it would take an act of contrition on his part.”
- Julie Pace, AP: “he would need some self discipline.”
- Charlie Spiering, Breitbart: “wrangle Congress to get behind his agenda.”
- Kristin Welker, NBC: “learn how to get a deal done in Washington as opposed to a real estate or business deal.”
But my favorite Trump story of the entire session came in the opening address by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer winning reporter David Fahrenthold. Fahrenthold was describing how he was doing a story tracking Trump’s promises of charity giving and the finances of the Trump Foundation. He found that the latter spent $10k on a large Trump portrait. He went to Twitter to ask if anyone knew where that portrait was. And he got a response. This fine work of charity spending was hanging in a sports bar in one of Trump’s resort hotels.
All of the sessions at the Newseum event are available for viewing on the Newseum channel on You Tube.