יום שישי, 27 ביולי 2018

The White House’s new communications chief is making the press corps great again

White House deputy chief of staff Bill Shine walks across Regent's Park in London after he arrived with President Donald Trump

  The Shining

Bill Shine thinks of the White House as his show and of himself as its top booker.

The former Fox News executive, who became President Donald Trump’s deputy chief of staff for communications this month, exercised his booker’s prerogative on Wednesday as he “disinvited” CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins from an open Rose Garden press event. In a subsequent dressing-down Shine gave to Collins in his office, he explained that the ouster was in retaliation for her persistent questioning of Trump at an earlier photo-op, where she represented the television pool.

“Did Michael Cohen betray you, Mr. President?” Collins called out twice as Trump’s press session with president of the European Commission terminated.

She followed with, “Mr. President, are you worried about what Michael Cohen is about to say to the prosecutors? Are you worried about what is on the other tapes, Mr. President?”

And she finished with, “Why is Vladimir Putin not accepting your invitation, Mr. President?”

According to Collins, Shine and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said her questions “were inappropriate for that venue” and that she was “shouting” — even though a review of the tape shows Collins producing only the standard decibels for such press sprays.

The usual voices in the press corps united to condemn Shine’s ham-fisted payback—the White House Correspondents’ Association, CNN’s Jake Tapper, New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker, NBC News’ Megyn Kelly, the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser, and many others. But even unusual voices, like Fox News President Jay Wallace, professed shock at Shine’s behavior. “We stand in strong solidarity with CNN for the right to full access for our journalists as part of a free and unfettered press,” Wallace said in a statement.

Long before Trump began yapping about “enemies of the people,” presidents insulted and disciplined the White House press corps for asking tough questions. In 1937, when New York Times reporter Robert Post persisted in asking President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a press conference if he would seek a third term, Roosevelt finally retorted, ”Bob, go put on the dunce cap and stand in the corner.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower so despised the Washington Post he instructed aides to bring him the sports pages only. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson once censured New York Times reporter Charles Mohr for asking “the Leader of the Free World” a “chicken-shit question” in a one-on-one interview. President Richard M. Nixon, of course, put reporters on his enemies list.

In 1982, Reagan White House aide Michael Deaver foreshadowed Shine by posting a notice that banned hectoring reporters from asking the president questions during photo ops. Deaver issued the ban, ABC News shouter Sam Donaldson said, because Reagan’s impromptu answers frequently exposed him as uninformed. But the Collins dust-up is different. It’s the nature of the questions—about Cohen and Putin—and not their loudness that has so unsettled Trump and his image-minder. Trump seems especially exasperated by the Cohen stories and the attendant discussions about his alleged payouts to paramours. Is he suffering at home because every new wave of sex talk riles his wife Melania? Does he interpret—as he should—that Cohen’s relentless semaphoring about cooperating with prosecutors means that more legal and domestic trouble is impending?

The Collins disinvitation has had another ruinous effect for Trump. It has united the media—if only for a moment—against him. It’s hard to imagine Fox News Channel declaring comradeship with Trump archenemy CNN under any other circumstances. Trump maintains a special loathing for CNN, routinely belittling its management, snubbing its reporter Jim Acosta and even reportedly berating his wife for watching it. That a CNN reporter asked the “inappropriate” questions about his sex-payout scandal did not go unnoticed by Trump. Collins also asked these pointed questions during a week in which Trump’s Putin-fawning at the Helsinki summit caused normally loyal Republicans to throw stones at him and some voters to reject him.(Could press unity be a thing—remember Jordan Fabian ceding question time at a White House press briefing to Hallie Jackson last week?)

Trump repeatedly insists that he doesn’t “need” the press like other presidents—he can command video time whenever he wants and reroute the national conversation with a tweet or a televised denunciation. Rerouting the conversation with a CNN brawl was Trump’s intention, tweeted Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery Wednesday. The fight got the media to talk about itself for a few hours.

Yet the president seems so rattled by his one-sided clash with Collins that the White House had to invent an excuse so he could avoid reporters as he exited Washington on Thursday morning to visit Iowa. Normally, the president flies to Joint Base Andrews on his helicopter, and reporters shout questions to him as he walks across the South Lawn to board the craft. Often, he answers. But this morning, as the Hill reported, Trump traveled via motorcade. Aides blamed “bad weather” for the switch, which caused reporters to ask, What bad weather? It’s the nicest day we’ve seen in Washington in a week! Tweets from NBC News reporter Hallie Jackson and others showed nothing but blue skies with a hint of clouds. Here’s a glimpse of the Andrews weather at flight time. Trump obviously sought to avoid reporters—or perhaps his staff sought to protect him from their prying questions.

Having now avoided a formal news conference for 525 days, Trump has brought the shouting of questions at photo-ops — “inappropriate” or not—on himself. As his presidency advances, he’s become a kind of mental recluse who hides in plain sight behind half-thoughts punctuated with placeholder comments like “believe me,” “billions and billions,” and “we’ll see about that.” Our windup president’s extravagantly produced show seems to be winding down.

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