WASHINGTON – In December 2008, President-elect Barack Obama slipped away from a White House press pool assigned to cover his every waking move. Obama and his family were vacationing in Hawaii and Obama ducked the press to visit Sea Life Park, according to a CNN dispatch at the time.
No one – absolutely no one – made any fuss about the future president betraying solemn protocol between Obama and the media.
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump, his wife, Melania, and family members slipped out of his Trump Tower headquarters in Manhattan to have dinner at New York’s Club 21 steak house.
Trump aides lied to the press pool, telling the staffers “the lid was on,” meaning there would be no more news that night, and the pool’s photographers, reporters and producers could go home, Forbes.com reported.
The Washington press corps, and several national media organizations, more than 20 in all, erupted with righteous fury, circulating open letters to Trump, insisting that he respect time-honored protocol and consider the responsibilities of the members of the traveling media. The Trump organization came back with a “gee whiz” answer, promising he would never do it again.
But was the release of the open letters an example of selective outrage? The answers are maybe yes, and probably no.
• No. Reporters have good reasons to be alarmed. Once before, Trump ditched the press pool just after his election, according to Forbes. He failed to notify them he was meeting with President Obama in the White House.
Nearly every one of the arrangements the press have with the executive branch are the result of courtesies, not law. These executive privileges include the entire West Wing press center in the White House. The late Helen Thomas, veteran correspondent, told me that Hillary Rodham Clinton as first lady wanted to close the press center so she could use the space as her office.
There are elaborate press facilities at the Pentagon and at the State Department; smaller ones at the Departments of the Treasury, Interior, Homeland Security and the agencies. I had a small office in the West Wing because of a courtesy a predecessor extended to the embattled President Richard Nixon in 1973.
Repeat, these are civilities accorded to the press and to the public by the president. But they are absolutely crucial to keeping the American people informed about their huge government.
Trump, who has earned a reputation for acting on a whim, or fury, could shut down these relationships with a wave of his hand.
On Friday, the White House pool was told it could not stay at a nearby hotel in New Jersey when Trump meets Sunday with 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to discuss the position of secretary of state. There is no polite way to describe Trump’s arbitrary behavior.
• Yes, maybe there was a touch of press overreaction at the time when these organizations shipped these open letters to the president-elect. But Trump for months whipped up his audiences by calling all media scum, and worse. And it may have helped elect him.
The questions now are: Will Trump continue his nastiness? And will the newborn liberal culture warriors in the mainstream media continue to rattle readers and audiences in order to secure their niche in the market?
There is no reason for optimism on either side.
The danger to the media is that Trump backs them into looking like a political entity permanently dedicated to destroying “the people’s choice,” The Donald. This will help no one but Trump, and a handful of media outlets. Not the nation. The times call for prudence. Not grandstanding.