A Quiet Place

With no State of the Union, demeanors are changing within the White House, reports Brian Karem

As they say, it was too quiet. This may be a favorable condition in a cemetery or battle, but when it comes to covering the White House, when it is too quiet it is often the harbinger of doom.

President Donald Trump doesn’t like things too quiet, it seems, so when you get a chance to take a breath, it just means something is coming. Last week, that “something” ended up being a rare letter from the president, who prefers to communicate online via 280 characters, to “madame” Nancy Pelosi. The new Speaker of the House of Representatives had sent a letter to President Trump suggesting he forego his annual State of the Union address due to the government shutdown and security concerns. Today, Trump said it would be "sad" if he skipped the SOTU; Pelosi responded by cancelling the House-hosted shindig altogether. Let's not forget that last week, the president sent a notice to Pelosi denying her the use of a military plane to war zones in Afghanistan because he preferred she stay in town to negotiate an end to the shutdown.

Thanks to Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh (the president’s de facto advisers), 33 days in, the president still wants his wall and is holding firm. For a moment, he did display an ounce of true leadership and compromise on the issue, offering to extend protections to Dreamers in exchange for wall funding on Saturday. But Trump never extended an invitation to Pelosi after denying her a military plane, nor did he set up a time to meet or propose an agenda.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Pelosi has a standing invitation to visit the White House whenever she wants. “If she calls here and wants to negotiate a deal, I can’t imagine the president would deny her access,” Sanders said. She has ceased the daily briefings, but she will take informal gaggles in her office on occasion when a small but significant enough number of reporters gather outside her door. Hogan Gidley, the deputy press secretary and Bill Shine, the communications director, also gaggle informally. Sometimes it is on background, sometimes it is for attribution. It is helpful, professional and low-key. But it is also odd to see an administration repeating itself three or four times to various groups of reporters instead of stating it once from a podium, so everyone gets the same information at the same time.
This was not a Sarah Sanders in front of the headlights. This was a Sarah Sanders heretofore unseen by the public—relaxed, open, to the point.
Of course, that is a result of working for a president who has no long-range communications strategy. Sanders has been quoted as saying something along the lines of every day being a battle. I would submit the biggest reason for that is how the president operates. Strategic planning is impossible under the conditions he has created. When the White House communications staff showed up for work last Thursday morning, a tit-for-tat letter to Speaker Pelosi wasn’t on the agenda. Senior White House sources said the president simply got the idea that morning.

Afterward, Gidley answered a couple of questions with reporters. Some younger journalists were pleased there wasn't a press briefing as that enabled them to get a head start over other reporters. I applaud the effort—and encourage it in all young reporters—but that is missing the point. Reporters shouldn’t have to compete with each other when the administration announces and explains a presidential decision—especially during a government shutdown. Younger reporters would do well to remember that some declarations by the president should be treated like a tornado warning. Everyone needs to know, right now.
Not Your Mother's Socialism
After our gaggle with Gidley, Sanders walked out of her office and, after exchanging pleasantries, offered insight on a couple other issues. She clarified the standing invitation to Pelosi and the president’s motive for cancelling Pelosi’s flight. I tweeted out some of Sarah’s statements and she sat with John Karl, Peter Alexander, myself and a few other reporters discussing a variety of subjects and answering some pointed questions about the Pelosi dustup. This was not a Sarah Sanders in front of the headlights. This was a Sarah Sanders heretofore unseen by the public—relaxed, open, to the point. The interaction wasn’t mean-spirited. It was professional and a big improvement over most of the interactions between this administration and the rest of the world.
This is where the small gaggle can be most helpful to the president. It puts his people in a less combative role with the White House press corps and gives reporters a chance to probe, talk less stridently and get better answers. Mike McCurry, the Clinton-era press secretary who  began daily on-camera briefings, regrets his decision and wishes he had never turned the cameras on. Many reporters—excluding those  in the television industry, which demands both audio and visuals—don’t disagree with turning off the cameras. There are many who still want us to simply ignore what the president or his staff says.

I could not disagree more. He’s the president. His actions have to be covered. We cannot abdicate our job, and those who say we should start ignoring him are as offensive to my sensibilities as those who accuse us of being fake news. (Not nearly as offensive as those who call us the “enemy of the people,” though.) 
Jumping over several obstacles, I got to the residence as Trump approached the only pool camera left there. I took a quick picture.
Our job is to be the conduit through which the information flows.  The administration is entering a dangerous and tenuous time in its existence. Trump seems to have gone “all in” on the attempt to force the country to build a wall on the Southern border most people don’t think needs to be built. The Mueller investigation is reaching a fever pitch, with Michael Cohen ready to testify in front of Congress. Democrats are announcing their 2020 candidacies. The House of Representatives is dominated by Democrats, and new faces, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are now on the House Oversight Committee. Some are out for blood.

Each day the shutdown drains resources—emotional, financial and political—stretching them to the limits. Our federal government is now asking people to work for free while also trying to feed their families. On the international stage, Russia now claims it owns destabilizing nuclear capacity, forcing us once again into a dangerous arms race. Leaders in Europe and the Middle East fear increasing Russian hegemony. A new arms race underscores the point that we have ignored the nuclear genie for years due to the “Mutually Assured Destruction” policy that assumed no one would start a nuclear war because we would all die. Now Russia has dumped that, and with Trump preaching about building “shields” from nuclear weapons, we’re back to the endless arguments that prompted the ABM treaty.

With Trump expected to return from a day trip to New Orleans, the press corps set up outside the White House residence, ready to ask a variety of questions about serious national events. Five minutes before his expected arrival, we were told Trump would instead go to the Oval Office. More than 50 reporters, sound engineers, producers and camera operators broke down from our set-ups near the residence, moved 50 yards and reset just in time to get pummeled with snow as Marine One whipped blizzard-like conditions into us. I’m sure I could hear laughter other than my own—coming from the helicopter.

At any rate, Trump gave us the slip and sprinted for the residence. Jumping over several obstacles, I got to the residence as Trump approached the only pool camera left there. I took a quick picture. It is odd for the president to stand in front of a solo reporter, camera and mike. I asked him if he still owned the shutdown. He looked at me, smiled and then announced he had bought hamburgers, pizza and McNuggets for the visiting NCAA Division One Football championship team, the Clemson Tigers.

Jerry Seinfeld once mused about what part of the chicken produced the McNugget. I remember a Clemson player reacting to the president’s culinary offering by saying “Our nutritionist must be having a fit.” I laughed, but something bothered me. Something other than the president serving fast food to champion athletes. It had been quiet when Trump sprinted off Marine One. Too quiet. I looked at the photo I took. The president. One mike. One camera. One reporter. Then I looked behind the president. I captured an image of Sarah Huckabee Sanders standing behind the president. She looked like a junior officer standing on the deck of the Titanic as the last lifeboat pushed off.

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