What the Trump White House press corps will look like

Despite being the target of verbal attacks from the now-president-elect on the campaign trail, experts say the journalists who cover President Trump will have the same privileges as in previous administrations.

WASHINGTON: Despite an unprecedentedly adversarial campaign-trail relationship between President-elect Donald Trump and the journalists who covered him, experts say his administration will likely maintain a normal relationship with the White House press corps.

Trump’s White House communications team may tweak some elements of its relationship with the reporters who work inside the White House, but its central function will most likely emerge untouched, says Greg Jenkins, founder of North Bay Strategies.

"It doesn’t mean there will be some kind of 180-degree shift between Trump and the press, because all presidents have an adversarial relationship with journalists," says Jenkins, press advance director for President George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and later a White House staffer. "That’s the nature of the beast. But will it look like it did on the campaign trail? Absolutely not."

Journalists are bracing for impact after a bruising campaign in which Trump often called them out by name from the stage in front of leering crowds. Some are fearing for their professions and their safety, according to Politico.

Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks told the outlet on Thursday that Trump will run a "traditional pool."

However, the same day, Trump refused to allow reporters to travel with him to a face-to-face meeting with President Barack Obama in the White House, setting off alarm bells among reporters, according to the Associated Press.

The Trump campaign didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment from PRWeek as of press time.

"His presidency poses the most significant challenge for media covering politics in a generation," says Scott Gerber, founder and partner at Vrge and former communications director for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). "They will have to hold him accountable. For a period of time on the campaign trail, the media played a cheerleader role. That’s no longer appropriate."

Jenkins adds that while those hostile overtures against the media served Trump well on the campaign trail, similar attacks would be pointless in the White House.

"It doesn’t make any sense for it to work that way," Jenkins said. "It makes sense when you’re running for president and it worked. But now that he’s elected, he doesn’t need to do that. Now he needs to govern. The press is a means by which he can disseminate information about his policies."

Corey Ealons, partner at VOX Global and a former director of specialty media in Obama’s first term, notes a positive relationship between Trump and the media could be beneficial.

"Trump is not a prisoner to tradition," Ealons adds. "He is someone that will carve his own lane and make his own moves. But it’s one thing to campaign and another thing to govern. Having a positive professional relationship with the press corps is a critical part of governing. It’s not just about messaging."

During the presidential contest, Trump’s Twitter-first campaign disseminated a message of change and authenticity that resonated with a cohort of mostly white voters in what were believed to be reliably Democratic states in the Rust Belt.  

Bypassing the media filter is an attractive notion, and presidents have used different means to talk to the American people. Franklin D. Roosevelt held fireside chats over the radio, Ronald Reagan spoke to Americans on TV, and Obama fielded questions on Reddit via an AMA.

The problem: the public knows no one has vetted the information coming directly from the president.

"While the American public may moan and groan about the press, they rely on them," Jenkins said. "The press occupies a particular role a lot of other countries don’t have. They can bitch and moan about the press, but they would miss the effect it has on this country."

Getting credentialed in the Trump White House
Managing the White House press corps requires careful orchestration of logistics and political theater. When the president flies on Air Force One, White House staffers organize a protective pool to travel with him. Preceding it is a charter plane organized by the White House travel office and paid for by news organizations, carrying 150 to 200 journalists along with White House staffers, who serve as intermediaries between senior members of the press office and the media. When Air Force One lands, staffers escort the protective pool through the back of the plane to cover the president exiting through the front.

However, journalists often complain they are losing access to public officials. In October, the White House Correspondents Association sent a letter to both Trump’s campaign, as well as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s, protesting their lack of access. Neither campaign had a protective press pool at the time. During his campaign, Trump kicked journalists out of some events and blacklisted news organizations entirely.

"He needs to rebuild trust with the press," Ealons said. "Part of the spirit of a peaceful transition is positive re-engagement with the press."

He doubts the process of credentialing journalists will change dramatically, though he expects new, non-traditional news outlets to join the crowd, such as Breitbart and the Drudge Report—"media that is politically favorable."

"Relations between the media and the president will be strained from the go," Gerber adds. "It’s up to administration, the president-elect, the chief of staff, and press secretary to rebuild the trust that has been lost. It starts and ends with respect. If he respects the press, the press will respect him."

Turning the page
On the campaign trail, Trump promised to loosen libel laws against the "dishonest media" and threatened to sue The New York Times for publishing parts of his 1995 income tax returns. However, Chip Babcock, a lawyer that handles First Amendment cases, dismisses that as campaign bluster.

"I hope both the president-elect and the press recognize the battlefield for what it is and leave that behind them," Babcock says.

Short of revising the First Amendment, Babcock contends Trump would have to set an unlikely litmus test for his Supreme Court nominees regarding libel. And conservative judges, he notes, are staunch supporters of the First Amendment.

"Journalists need to get over the campaign, too," Babcock says. "Just as Trump needs to retreat to a more traditional role, the press collectively has to, too. They have to allow him the normal honeymoon a president gets and approach him in good faith, but they have to do the journalistic job the country envisioned for them."

Speculation about potential members of a Trump cabinet is ongoing, including who will be his press secretary. Whoever Trump picks, Gerber says, will face the same "enormous challenge" the candidate and his team did during the campaign: maintaining discipline. He notes that information is tightly controlled in a disciplined White House.

"If his administration is anything like the campaign trail, it will leak like a sieve," Gerber says. "His own advisors used the media to send messages to the candidate. If he speaks off the cuff as he did on the campaign trail, his policy agenda will be derailed before it gets started. He will spend endless news cycles clarifying imprecise joking and potentially even offensive terms."

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