2019 WHCA Dinner without Donald Trump

The Press Must Keep Tracking Trump Unapologetically

On yet another president-less White House Correspondents' Association dinner

President Donald Trump will not be attending the White House Correspondents' Association’s annual dinner again this year. No one was holding their breath, mind you, to see if the president would come. After all, the prevailing rumor is if he should find himself in a social setting with that many members of the press, he would spontaneously combust.

Okay, some were actually praying for this. Many call the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner the press’s annual prom. Others call it worse things. But it always attracts the powerful, sometimes the glamorous and occasionally a few meaningful attendees. It exists to raise money for scholarships given to journalism students, but its perceived "Hollywood style" has led to a variety of praises and put downs not easily addressed in the confines of a column.

Annual Hollywood glamour aside, there seemed to be a 10-second window—in between firing staffers from the Department of Homeland Security and ordering another Big Mac—when Trump considered attending this year's dinner. Then he got distracted by a wall, Egypt, Israel or something else and punted on the idea of attending.

The mere idea that he considered going had some members of the press angry. “Why should we have him there?” more than a few journalists questioned. Some are angry because he’s called us fake news and enemies of the people. Some are bitter with his temper tantrums; others are disgusted with his repeated attempts to get reporters to shut up and sit down when they ask him something he doesn’t like.

Most are still concerned about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi and many of us are angry with Trump’s lack of concern over Khashoggi’s death. In short, the press seemed to be mulling over the ramifications of giving the president public access to a press event.
It is hypocritical and honestly foolish for the press to fight so hard every day to get access to the president of The United States and then consider not accepting his presence in an environment far friendlier to us than to him.
At the same time, we ask this president for access on a daily basis and often receive less than positive results for our inquiries. The president himself craves this access. As the administration loves to point out, he’s the most transparent president in history. He answers questions from the reporter's pool. He stands and talks on the South Lawn, and his minions often hold court on the White House driveway. But he and his minions have eschewed the past. They do not favor environments such as a briefing room, which does not give them an advantage to control the message. They do not stand for scrutiny. They strive for total control. While some say this is no different from previous presidents, Trump often takes things to the extreme and ignores rules, real or imagined, in his attempt to promote the Trump brand.

The WHCA dinner knocks the president out of the president’s comfort zone. He can control what he says, but he is speaking to a room filled with some 2,000 people—many of whom are journalists and a good number of those people would otherwise be unlikely to be in such close proximity to the president. It is also a Washington, D.C. crowd. It isn’t a rally in Ohio or West Virginia. Not everyone in the room loves the president. Many in that crowd will have questions unanswered and have more pending for the president. Many comedians and their agents do not hesitate in calling the WHCA Dinner a “tough room.” It could be disastrous for a controversial president. We should welcome President Trump into our room with open arms, if indeed we are not hypocrites ourselves.

Could he turn it into a rally? Maybe. Would he act like an ass? Probably. Would he at some point go off script and offend someone with a Trumpian like dramatic flair? Most assuredly. But the WHCA Dinner is our room. Not his. By even agreeing to walk into that type of environment, the president acknowledges he’s learned he can’t control everything all the time.

Trump will be Trump. His enemies and friends share equal concern when he does so. Perhaps Trump is right: The world is coming together. Maybe not in the way Trump intended, but my dad said be careful what you wish for. However you slice it, the press has an obligation to listen to what the man says. We do not owe it to the president, but we do owe it to the electorate. You can always turn it off yourself, switch channels, use the newspaper to start a fire in the fireplace, look at a new webpage or pick up a book and read something better. As long as Trump is the leader of the nation, what he says must and should be reported.

After his administration expires, his relevancy will diminish. But for now, the world must know what the president does and says. Ultimately that is why Trump hasn’t the courage to step foot in that room. He’s a coward.
The WHCA Dinner is a keystone element in determining what type of leader we possess in this country. The press and the president have a decidedly adversarial relationship. As Sam Donaldson once explained, “It is their job to put the president’s best foot forward and it is my job to determine what’s really going on.” This relationship does not have to get personal. But it has. The president has called us the enemy of the people and fake news. Some of us have died. Some have been beaten. Some have been threatened. Some of us have been told to sit down and shut up. But, as we do not sit down and shut up, neither should Trump. He should always take an opportunity to interact with the press.

Long term, in-depth and honest interaction between the government and the press is essential for a democracy to flourish. The president should set an example of transparency and show up to the WHCA Dinner for decent food, good folks and a chance to informally interact with us and illuminate the quality of our president. Has Trump grown in his ability to handle adversarial relationships, and will he attempt to make any concessions, explanations, apologies, offers of friendship or anything else when he appears before one of the most important gatherings for the press in the country? All of those questions, again, won’t be answered this year.

The president of course loves theatrics and many have speculated that he wouldn’t remain away from the Hollywood appeal of the annual WHCA Dinner for the full length of his administration. But so far, he’s staying away. The reality is showing up at the dinner would only ease tensions and help this administration immeasurably as it heads into re-election season. But so far, he only loves the “Will he or won’t he?” game of guessing whether or not he will attend.

With his cultural knowledge limited to Leave it to Beaver episodes and the lurid contents of "Love American Style,” Trump loves to tease an audience. It’s a staple of his administration’s way of handling news and information. Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about. Trump isn’t at Strawberry Fields, but he is spinning a yarn.

The trouble remains that reality and Trump do not often coexist. But I think it is hypocritical and honestly foolish for the press to fight so hard every day to get access to the president of The United States and then consider not accepting his presence in an environment far friendlier to us than to him. Not only the knowledge we gain about him will be important, but any interaction between a sitting president and that many members of the free press ultimately portends positive results for the United States and its people. Turn the camera on and let Trump be Trump. The press should not act so surprised any more when we see the president exercise a behavior most church-going people wouldn’t accept at a neighborhood barbecue. Instead we should spend our time further investigating the many policy and social issues on which this administration has punted.

Either way, 2020 is coming quick and few still seem to realize how to handle the president. Let it bray. Turn the channel.

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