White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has made his daily briefings must-see television for political junkies and media watchdogs, but his combative style has also forced White House correspondents from rival news organizations to work together to an unprecedented degree.
“There is no average day covering the Trump presidency,” CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett told TheWrap moments after he occupied his front-row seat for one of Spicer’s briefings.
A few weeks back, Spicer excluded CNN, Politico the New York Times and other news organizations from an off-camera press briefing, and several other news organizations skipped it to protest the treatment of their rivals.
“When those sorts of things have taken place, there is a camaraderie that exists among reporters and a feeling that if we don’t all hang together then we’ll all hang separately,” Politico White House correspondent Eli Stokols told TheWrap.
Stokols said there is a “real solidarity” between correspondents from competing outlets and many refuse to allow Spicer to play them against each other. He pointed out that it’s noticeable during most on-camera briefings.
“His strategy for cutting off follow-up questions is to very quickly call on the next journalist. It’s a pretty fast-paced back and forth sometimes and it can be combative,” Stokols said. “You have seen, pretty regularly, a collective awareness of what the most important questions are each day… When Spicer doesn’t give a complete answer, cuts the reporter off and goes to the next person… the next person that gets called on, they’ll come back to it.”
Stokols said that a lot of questions start off with, “I want to follow up on what [Fox News correspondent] John Roberts was asking or I want to follow up on what [New York Times correspondent] Glenn Thrush was asking.”
Stokols said that despite working for competing outlets, “There is a recognition that that we sort of need each other. We’re all stronger if we’re pushing for the same clarity.”
Garrett said that reporters don’t plan in advance to follow up each other’s questions, it just comes naturally. “I’ve never discussed it with anybody,” he said. “I don’t need to and I’m guessing other reporters haven’t needed to either.”
On a typical day reporters start to roll into the White House in the morning, especially if there is a Trump photo-op or meeting with a foreign leader scheduled. When Spicer is scheduled to conduct an on-camera press briefing, the West Wing press area starts to fill up around lunchtime.
“It is really hit and miss on how many people are working out of the White House each day because space is so limited,” Stokols said. “Everybody is crammed in like sardines, fighting for every inch of table space.”
The correspondents make it work because “being there is very important,” he said, but the West Wing press area offers very little privacy.
“If you’re working on a story, you’re not going to be making phone calls to sources around all your colleagues,” Stokols said. Luckily for CBS News, Garrett has his own designated workstation.
“It’s never not cramped,” he said. “That just comes with this beat. The only way to enlarge the space is to take us off the property… none of us are willing to do that.”
As for the challenges facing Spicer and the new administration, Stokols and Garrett noted that it was still early and many White House executives are adjusting to the particular demands of government.
“It is only natural and it should be understood that someone who has never held political office would have to become adjusted to the institutional prerogatives, limitations and powers of the presidency,” Garrett said. “That’s what this White House team is going through. That’s what this president is going through.”
Stokols agreed, saying the staff is still “getting its sea legs,” and was quick to point out that the media covering this administration is also still getting adjusted.
As a result of the new administration learning the ropes, Garrett and other White House correspondents have to be on their toes at all times.
“Every new administration brings a lot of curiosity and focus,” Garrett said. “The early days of the Obama administration were incredibly tense.”
Stokols said Spicer will use every available tool in order to convey Trump’s message, “whether it’s humor, anger or intimidation.” At the end of the day, though, he said that conveying the president’s message can often be “an impossible job.”
“Trump speaks for Trump. Anyone else trying to do it will struggle, and also not do as good of a job,” Stokols said. “Sean has a very, very hard job.”