Donald Trump had spent Wednesday essentially hiding from real people.
His visits to the sites of two mass shootings were almost illicit: he avoided public places in favor of hospitals, where he met mostly with people who were on duty and therefore unlikely to make a scene. He saw few actual shooting victims, and, evidently fearing that some might confront him with his own culpability in spreading the toxic anti-immigrant hysteria that infected one of the shooters, he didn’t let journalists come along.
Some observers were not impressed.
White House press officials had insisted that the visit was not “a photo op” but was “about the victims and their families and thanking medical staff.” That was quickly revealed as a lie when the press office released not one, not two, but three slick videos shot and selectively edited by its own film crew, North Korean style. The third one actually had a triumphant soundtrack.
Trump’s brief public comments included marveling about himself – “The love, the respect for the office of the presidency—I wish you could have been in there to see it,” he said about his visit to Dayton. An amateur video captured him bragging to hospital staff about the size of his crowds.
And before, during and after touchdowns, Trump sullied the presidential tradition of solemnly grieving after a tragedy by unleashing a torrent of sour tweets aimed at his critics, even in one case airing a bitter grievance about something that never happened.
Then, on the way home from El Paso, Trump tromped to the press cabin at the back of the plane and held court with a handful of journalists for 45 minutes – but only on the condition that they keep what he said a secret.
The entire talk was off the record – save one five-minute exchange about, of all things, his intent to commute the prison sentence on federal public corruption charges for former Illinois Gov. and “Apprentice” contestant Rod Blagojevich.
I don’t think reporters should ever let Trump go off the record. On-the-record interviews are bad enough.
But in this case, I don’t blame the individual reporters, because they were all serving in their roles as members of the traveling press pool – in essence, representing the entire press corps – and as a result were operating under rules established by the White House Correspondents’ Association. Those rules say that if the president wants to go off the record, the pool is supposed to let him. So I blame the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Mark Knoller, the veteran CBS News Radio White House correspondent and unofficial chronicler of contacts between the president and journalists, said that policy was set only after some spirited arguments within the correspondents’ association, with him in the minority.
“I argued against it,” Knoller told me. “If the president wants to go off the record, he can do it privately. But the pool is there for everybody and everybody ought to be able to gain access to that material.”
Knoller’s proposed solution was blunt: “My feeling was that when the pool is there, when the president goes off the record, the press ought to report it in the pool reports, which would be a disincentive to do it.” That would be great disincentive indeed, since pool reports are essentially public. It would de facto amount to refusing to go along.
Correspondents’ association president Jonathan Karl, of ABC, didn’t return an email request for an interview.
Among the dozen or so journalists on the plane Wednesday night were Eli Stokols of the Los Angeles Times, Ashley Parker of the Washington Post, Jeff Mason of Reuters, Zeke Miller of the Associated press, and Josh Wingrove of Bloomberg News. None of them, as I hit “publish,” had revealed anything indicating deep new insights into the president’s mind.
Stokols talked to me a bit about how it happened. “We’re in the back of the plane in the press cabin and you just suddenly hear a shuffling of people entering the cabin and everybody kind of awakes from their stupor, or whatever they’re doing – watching a movie, reading a book, zoning out.
“I think the press cabin had just watched ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Ferris Bueller’ was about to begin.
“Then, within a couple of seconds, there’s the president stepping into the cabin. And they say, you know, this is off the record.”
Stokols said there was no pushback because of the pool policy.
“We all rotate in serving in this role,” he said. “And the responsibility is to be a reporter for everybody else.”
That responsibility also extends to sharing the details of the interview with other correspondents, on the condition that they also keep them non-public. “I’ve already fielded a couple phone calls from other reporters this morning asking for more details,” Stokols said. I didn’t ask — not being willing to adhere to those conditions.
Vice President Dick Cheney, flying back from Afghanistan in 2007, famously insisted on being identified as a “senior administration official” — even when the transcript shows he spoke in the first person
President Clinton once talked to reporters on Air Force One for nearly three hours, in what his press secretary said was on “psych-background”.
And it’s not really clear that “off the record” means what it used to anymore.
On occasion, reporters who weren’t a party to off-the-record interviews with the president manage to wheedle some headlines out of those who were.
And in 2017, Trump had an off-the-record conversation with reporters aboard Air Force One — but the next day asked why his comments weren’t used.
Indeed, for Trump to go off the record is probably less galling – as well as less useful – than when past presidents have done it, because he is hardly one to keep things to himself. So if he says anything new off the record, he’s likely to tweet it or say it on the record fairly soon, anyway.
One exception to this rule came last year, when Daniel Dale, then a reporter at the Toronto Star, somehow learned of genuinely incendiary comments Trump had made in an off-the-record portion of an interview with Bloomberg News.
Trump had said, off the record, that he would not compromise with Canada in the then-ongoing trade talks, but couldn’t say it publicly because “it’s going to be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal.” He later expressed great irritation over the leak.
In an entirely unrelated event, the Washington Post ran an article Thursday morning based on an unusual on-the-record interview that Trump held with reporter Michael Kranish, to discuss his alcoholic brother’s life and death – something Trump has cited as evidence of his empathy for addicts.
Kranish informed me that he had called the White House “to say I was doing a story about his brother, and asked that the interview request be put before him.” Trump agreed and the interview took place last week. “I did ask him a question about the news of the day, which was the Baltimore comments, at the end. I did a short story that included those comments with a colleague on the day of the interview,” Kranish explained. He said the Post is not currently planning to release a transcript.