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Donald Trump, A.G. Sulzberger escalate news media battle

July 30, 2018

President Trump recently warned thousands of veterans at a convention not to believe the “crap” about him in the media, and his White House last week barred a reporter from a public event as punishment for asking him uncomfortable questions loudly during an Oval Office meeting.

On Sunday, the president engaged in a war of words with the publisher of The New York Times, who said Mr. Trump’s portrayal of the press as an enemy of the people is “dangerous and harmful to our country.”

“I told the president directly I thought his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said of a recent meeting with Mr. Trump. “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Mr. Trump fired back on Twitter, “I will not allow our great country to be sold out by anti-Trump haters in the dying newspaper industry.”

“When the media-driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome - reveals internal deliberations of our government, it truly puts the lives of many, not just journalists, at risk! Very unpatriotic! Freedom of the press also comes with a responsibility to report the news accurately,” he tweeted.

Just another week in the life of one of the most media-accessible presidents in modern history, one who is taking on an ever-growing share of the White House communications role as his clashes with the press sharpen.

Although his relationship with the media has hit a low point, it’s undeniable that Mr. Trump has made himself available to journalists more often than his predecessors during his first 18 months in office.

He has taken questions frequently before departing the White House on Marine One, held forth with reporters for long periods in Cabinet meetings and bantered with journalists on Air Force One to an extent not seen in decades, if ever.

“He does a ton of press himself,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former political director to President George W. Bush. “Unlike any other president I’ve ever seen, he answers questions at almost everything he goes to.”

Despite his availability, Mr. Trump increasingly is seeking to manage relations with the media on his terms.

On Friday, he announced that he would hold a “news conference” on the South Lawn to trumpet strong second-quarter growth of 4.1 percent in gross domestic product. The president spoke from a podium about the “amazing” success, invited his economic advisers to say a few words and then turned on his heels and went back inside the White House without taking a single question.

Mr. Trump will meet Monday at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, having held 11 press conferences so far this year. Barack Obama held a total of 19 during his second year as president.

But Mr. Trump prefers sharing the podium with foreign leaders over solo news conferences he has held only three solo events out of 32 overall in his presidency. At joint press conferences, the questions are usually limited to two journalists from each country, and the sessions typically are shorter than solo news conferences.

Mr. Obama held seven solo press conferences in his first year in office; George W. Bush held four.

Mr. Trump also has been firing off tweets to his 53 million followers at a more rapid pace, averaging 11 per day in the past month. Many of them focus on special counsel Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt” and on Republican candidates he is endorsing in the midterm elections. During his first six months in office, the president was tweeting about six times a day.

On Sunday, Mr. Trump tweeted that had a “very good and interesting meeting” with Mr. Sulzberger at the White House on July 20.

“Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

In a statement, Mr. Sulzberger said he met with the president primarily to address his “deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric.”

“I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism,” he said.

Vice President Mike Pence said Sunday on Fox News that the White House defends the First Amendment.

“This administration believes in the freedom of the press, and President Trump and I and our administration have provided extraordinary access to the media,” he said.

As the president takes his message to the people on Twitter and in media interviews with largely friendly outlets such as Fox News, the White House has been cutting back on the number of press briefings conducted by spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Mrs. Sanders has held only eight briefings in the past two months. In January, she held 11.

The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a Republican close to the West Wing communications team said they have always operated in the belief that Mr. Trump is his own best spokesman.

“They’ll [hold a briefing] when they feel like it’s necessary to get out there,” the Republican said. “Right now, they’re attempting to work around it through the president himself.”

Mr. Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes, serves as White House director of strategic communications, said the dwindling number of briefings is “completely logical.”

“It really doesn’t make sense with this president to have a person in the spokesperson’s job be doing as many briefings when he’s doing the briefings himself,” said Mr. Schlapp. “He’s not doing it in that [press] room, but he’s doing it at all the events and on Twitter. Just let him speak. It’s his administration. He is making the major decisions. And he knows why he’s making those decisions, and he knows best how to explain them. So why put an intermediary there every day?”

It’s not lost on the White House that the press has turned increasingly hostile in the on-camera briefings, especially in the wake of the controversy over the administration’s rescinded policy of separating illegal immigrant children from their parents at the southern border.

The administration also has been cutting back on press briefings at the Pentagon. Defense Department spokeswoman Dana W. White has not held an on-camera question-and-answer session with reporters since May, and veteran reporters say the climate for journalists inside the Pentagon has worsened.

Defense Secretary James Mattis has not appeared in the Pentagon briefing room since April, although he did hold an off-camera session with reporters last month. Pentagon officials say it’s simply not a priority to keep journalists happy.

The administration’s relationship with the press took an even more confrontational turn last week when White House Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine and Mrs. Sanders told CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins that she was not welcome to a Rose Garden event where the president was to speak. They were reacting to her questioning of Mr. Trump in the Oval Office earlier in the day about his estranged personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During the week, Mr. Trump sidestepped several questions on camera about Mr. Cohen, who is said to have turned on his former boss in the special counsel’s investigation.

The Washington Post, citing current and former administration officials, reported Friday that Mr. Trump has sought to punish other journalists for the way they ask him questions and directed White House staff to ban Jim Acosta of CNN and April Ryan of American Urban Radio from covering official events or even to revoke their press credentials.

Mrs. Sanders said Ms. Collins continued to call out questions to the president after the press had been told to leave the room, but it’s an occurrence at nearly every Oval Office meeting that Mr. Trump holds with media in attendance.

Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said on CNN Sunday that the decision to bar Ms. Collins “probably came from the president.”

“He likes to be respected. He was probably frustrated at that moment,” Mr. Scaramucci said. He added that he believes the White House’s strategy toward the press will galvanize reporters against it.

“Having a war declaration or having that level of antagonism with the press does not help the president, does not serve his interests going into the midterms or the re-election,” Mr. Scaramucci said.

Mr. Pence said the relationship between any White House and any press corps “is always healthy and robust and occasionally represents disagreements. I’m confident they’ll be able to work out this relationship in a positive way.”

White House Correspondents’ Association President Olivier Knox said the White House’s move to bar a reporter from a public event “cannot stand.”

But it’s not clear what recourse the journalists group has. Nor does it seem likely that the president will start to gain more positive media coverage. One study pegs Mr. Trump’s share of negative news coverage at 92 percent.

The Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog, found the vast majority of sound bites on ABC, CBS and NBC nightly newscasts aired from Mr. Trump’s inauguration through last month were negative. The networks devoted nearly 17 hours of coverage to immigration, including the travel ban and the recent enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy at the border.

Mr. Trump tweeted, “90% of media coverage of my Administration is negative, despite the tremendously positive results we are achieving, it’s no surprise that confidence in the media is at an all time low! ... No matter how much they try to distract and cover it up, our country is making great progress under my leadership, and I will never stop fighting for the American people!”

Mr. Shine, a former top executive at Fox News who came on board the West Wing this month, is expected to have more influence over the images and video of the president that every White House devotes significant effort to get right.

“They’ve done a great job on social media, but I think they could up their game when it comes to the video and pictures that come out of events,” Mr. Schlapp said.

Mr. Trump has been known to chide a world-class news photographer for giving him a “double chin” in a picture, or forbidding network camera operators to tape him in the press cabin of Air Force One, apparently because he dislikes the lighting on the plane.

On a more substantive front, the president is so frustrated with media coverage of his policies that he told the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention last week to disregard completely the negative news reports about his trade dispute with the European Union.

“Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” the president said. “Just stick with us; don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.”

The audience cheered Mr. Trump, and many in the crowd booed the news media in the convention hall.

A development related to the special counsel’s sprawling investigation has opened a new communications battleground for Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen has hired former Clinton White House attorney and veteran Washington operative Lanny Davis to represent him in the investigation.

Just in the past week, Mr. Davis released to the media a recording of Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump discussing a potential payment in 2016 to a former Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with Mr. Trump.

Soon afterward, reports surfaced that Mr. Cohen would refute the president’s claim that he didn’t know about a June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives at Trump Tower in New York.

“That’s going to be much more of a challenge, because Lanny Davis has been at the top of this game for a long time,” the Republican operative said. “He worked for the Clinton White House, and he understands hardball communications. It is a problem.”

Naturally, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to answer the accusations, saying again that he didn’t know about the Trump Tower meeting in advance.

He said he felt compelled to explain the controversy “so the Fake News doesn’t waste my time with dumb questions.”

⦁ Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.

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