Andrew Marantz waded into Il Douche's private swamp AKA the White House Briefing Room. A busy abattoir has more charm. The stench is palpable among the words in this post. The dishonesty is bottomless. Marantz probably had to take a shower after posting the essay to his superior editor. If this is a (fair & balanced) portrait of the darkest hour of the US Fourth Estate, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Trolling The Press Corps
By Andrew Marantz
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
In normal times, White House press briefings make for boring television. Robert Gibbs, Jay Carney, and Josh Earnest, the three generic-looking white guys who served as successive press secretaries under President Barack Obama, could walk unmolested through the streets of most American cities. Only on rare occasions was a clip from one of their briefings—for example, a testy exchange between Carney and Jonathan Karl, of ABC News, debating the logistics of Obamacare enrollment—remarkable enough to make headlines.
President Trump seems to have no tolerance for boring television. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, now a recurring character on “Saturday Night Live,” is often tongue-tied, enraged, or both. Spicer’s briefings, broadcast live on C-SPAN, are among the most highly rated programs on daytime TV, beating out “General Hospital” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.” On major networks, many hours are devoted to nightly exegeses of Spicer’s serial self-contradictions, and to Sunday-morning sermons about how he is imperilling the First Amendment. On YouTube, accounts with names such as Trump Mafia and Based Patriot repost Spicer’s briefings, and others post exultant compilations of the “spiciest” moments, overlaying his rebukes of reporters with images of flames and chili peppers.
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, in the West Wing, has seven rows of seven seats. The Associated Press, Reuters, and the biggest TV networks have reserved seats in the front row; blogs like Politico and Real Clear Politics are near the middle; BuzzFeed and the BBC are in the back. The seating chart is the purview of the White House Correspondents’ Association, an independent board of journalists who, with the sombre secrecy of a papal conclave, assess news organizations according to factors such as regularity of coverage and centrality to the national discourse.
There are also correspondents who might be called floaters—those who have White House credentials but no assigned seat. Some floaters work for outlets that are too new to have been included in the most recent seating chart; others work for outlets that are marginal or disreputable. When press briefings are half empty, floaters can find vacant seats. In the early days of the Trump Administration, when each day’s briefing is oversubscribed, floaters pack the aisles, angling for a spot visible from the podium. The paradigmatic example of a floater is Raghubir Goyal, an amiable, somewhat absent-minded man in his sixties. Goyal claims to represent the India Globe, a newspaper that, as far as anyone can tell, is defunct. Nevertheless, he has attended briefings since the Carter Administration, and has asked so many questions about Indo-American relations that his name has become a verb. “To Goyal”: to seek out a reporter who is likely to provide a friendly question, or a moment of comic relief. All press secretaries get cornered, and all have, on occasion, Goyaled their way out. But no one Goyals like Spicer.
Until recently, the more established White House correspondents have regarded floaters as a harmless distraction—the equivalent of letting a batboy sit in the dugout. Now they are starting to see the floaters as an existential threat. “It’s becoming a form of court-packing,” one White House correspondent told me. Outlets that have become newly visible under the Trump Administration include One America News Network, which was founded in 2013 as a right-wing alternative to Fox News; LifeZette, a Web tabloid founded in 2015 by Laura Ingraham, the radio commentator and Trump ally; Townhall, a conservative blog started by the Heritage Foundation; the Daily Caller, co-founded in 2010 by Tucker Carlson, now a Fox News host; and the enormously popular and openly pro-Trump Breitbart News Network. Most of the White House correspondents from these outlets are younger than thirty. “At best, they don’t know what they’re doing,” a radio correspondent told me. “At worst, you wonder whether someone is actually feeding them softball questions.” He added, “You can’t just have a parade of people asking, ‘When and how do you plan to make America great again?’ ”
For years, the first question of each press briefing has usually gone to the Associated Press, whose reporters sit in the middle of the front row. In Spicer’s first briefing, on January 21st, which lasted five and a half minutes, he uttered several verifiable falsehoods—“This was the largest audience to ever witness an Inauguration, period”—then left without taking any questions. For the first question of his second briefing, he called on the New York Post, whose reporter, sitting in the fifth row, was clearly surprised. He asked, “When will you commence the building of the border wall?” In Spicer’s third briefing, his first question went to a reporter from LifeZette, who wondered why the Administration hadn’t taken a harder line on immigration. Many of Spicer’s early briefings were unusually short—about half an hour, with ten minutes of prepared remarks in the beginning. He often escapes from the podium without facing many tough questions from mainstream journalists. (This month, perhaps hoping to foreclose public scrutiny, or to starve “Saturday Night Live” of material, Spicer did his briefings off-camera for a week.)
Major Garrett, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, sits in the front row. “Historically, the way the briefing room has been organized is, the closer you are, the farther you’ve come,” Garrett said. “And the person at the podium has tended to recognize that.” More experienced reporters, he said, “ask questions that are sharper, more informed. Not, ‘What’s your message today?’ Not, ‘Here’s a paintbrush—would you paint us a pretty picture?’ ” If established reporters got fewer questions relative to the floaters, I asked, would this be good or bad for democracy? “We’ll see,” Garrett said. “We’re engaged in a grand experiment.”
A TV correspondent told me that calling on front-row reporters first isn’t just about appealing to their egos: “It’s also about maintaining a sense of predictability, a sense that eventually the substantive questions will be answered. Throwing that into chaos—‘Maybe you’ll get a question, if you shout loud enough, who knows?’—makes everyone desperate and competitive and makes us look like a bunch of braying jackals. Which I don’t think is an accident.”
About once a week, the walls behind the lectern are turned inside-out, revealing built-in screens from which reporters around the country can ask questions by video link. This is another Spicer innovation—the “Skype seats.” Recent Skype questions were allotted to a Trump supporter and newspaper owner in Kentucky, who asked about reducing coal-mining regulations, and to a talk-radio host named Lars Larson, who addressed the press secretary, an officer in the Navy Reserve, as “Commander Spicer,” before asking whether the Administration would privatize federally protected parkland. During one of these sessions, Jared Rizzi, a White House correspondent for Sirius XM, tweeted, “Skypeophant (n.) – super-friendly questioner used to burn up briefing time through the magic of early-aughts technology.” “I certainly appreciate the purpose of bringing geographic diversity into the room,” Rizzi told me. “I also appreciate ideological diversity. I don’t appreciate diversity of journalistic practice.”
A longtime Washington reporter from a mainstream network echoed that sentiment. “I don’t mind them bringing in conservative voices that they feel have been underrepresented,” he said. “Personally, I don’t even mind them fucking with the front-row guys, the Jonathan Karls of the world. Those guys are a smug little cartel, and it’s fun to watch them squirm, at least for a little while. But at what point does it start to delegitimize the whole idea of what happens in that room? When does it cross the line into pure trolling?”
One Sunday afternoon in February, Lucian Wintrich was in his studio apartment in the East Village, washing down a mouthful of vitamins with a lukewarm takeout latte. He was leaving for Washington, DC, within the hour. “I’m a bit hungover, I’m sorry to report,” he said. “Hardly the ideal way to make my grand DC entrance, but so be it.” He sent a text to his boyfriend, lit a cigarette, and started to pack. His walls were covered with framed art, including a line drawing of a woman, gagged and strapped to an imaginary instrument of sexual torture, and photographs of several seminude young men wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, which were from Wintrich’s “Twinks 4 Trump” series. “Good art should be transgressive,” he said. “These days, it seems, the best way to be transgressive is simply to be a white, male, proudly pro-American conservative.”
Wintrich, who is twenty-eight and has no professional training in journalism, was on his way to Washington to join the White House press corps. “I can only imagine what they’re going to make of me,” he said, smiling impishly and rolling his eyes. A few weeks earlier, at a pre-Inauguration party called the DeploraBall, I had spent a portion of the evening chatting with Wintrich, one of several far-right social-media stars in attendance. At one point, he excused himself to make an announcement from the stage: “We’ve had eight miserable years of people in the White House press corps—CNN, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post—writing articles” about President Obama, such as “ ‘The Best 80 Times That I Wanted to Jerk Off to Our President.’ ” This bias would soon be rectified. “We’ve been in contact with people in the new Administration, and . . . I’m going to be . . . the youngest, gayest correspondent in the White House in history!” A cheer went up from the crowd as the announcement was made, followed by a chant: “Real news! Real news!”
Wintrich, a slim, good-looking brunet, grew up in Pittsburgh. At eighteen, when he enrolled at Bard College, he was a standard-issue progressive. By his junior year, he had become a Reaganite. “I was incredibly annoyed by the P.C. culture on campus, being told what not to say,” he said. “Plus, I’ll admit, I’ve always had a contrarian streak.” He moved to New York, where he was a “creative” by day and a “party host” by night, both jobs that are not quite as glamorous as their euphemistic titles imply. A “creative” works at an advertising agency. (Wintrich claims that his former agency fired him for his political views, but that he can’t elaborate because they settled out of court.) A “party host” is paid a few hundred dollars to show up at a club, invite a coterie of attractive friends, and spend an evening being conspicuously charming. “I had a good run, for a few years, as a darling of the artsy New York gay scene,” Wintrich told me. “Then I came out as pro-Trump, and all those bitches turned against me.”
Last summer, at a Gays for Trump party at the Republican National Convention, Wintrich met several of the country’s most effective right-wing propagandists, including Jim Hoft, a fifty-six-year-old blogger who lives in St. Louis. Since 2004, Hoft has run the Gateway Pundit, whose posts are often picked up by the Drudge Report and distributed widely through Facebook. Recent Gateway Pundit headlines include “Feral Muslim Migrants Shout ‘Allah Akbar’, Attack Police in France” and “Breaking: Creepy New Video Released of Joe Biden Groping Little Girls.” During the Presidential campaign, the Gateway Pundit received more than a million unique visitors a day, roughly on a par with The Weekly Standard.
Hoft and Wintrich became friends, and Wintrich began writing for the site. His beat there might be described, generously, as media criticism—or, less generously, as a series of broadsides in a dirty culture war, with emotional cogency emphasized over empirical coherence. After BuzzFeed ran a story accusing the Gateway Pundit, among other right-wing blogs, of using “alternative facts,” Wintrich wrote a post headlined, misleadingly, “Buzzfeed Admits Liberal ‘Fake News’ No Longer Works—Points To Gateway Pundit as News of Future.”
Wintrich was taking the bus to DC because, he explained, as a fiscal conservative he couldn’t bring himself to support Amtrak. He had packed an Yves Saint Laurent blazer, three Hermès ties, and a bottle of Dior Eau Sauvage. “I’ve got my first few outfits all lined up, and, I have to say, they’re extremely cute,” he said. On his phone, he reviewed a draft of a contract formalizing his employment with the Gateway Pundit. In a previous version of the contract, he said, “there was a sentence about ‘Employee must maintain professional behavior at all times.’ I called Jim and asked, ‘Does this mean I shouldn’t troll liberals anymore?’ and he went, ‘Oh, we’d better just take that line out.’ ”
Wintrich intended to spend the bus ride catching up on recent news and drafting questions for his first press briefing. Instead, he opened his laptop, which is decorated with a Barry Goldwater sticker, and binge-watched several episodes of the animated sitcom “King of the Hill.” He didn’t seem to take the news-gathering aspect of his new job too seriously; more to the point, he didn’t seem to consider taking the news seriously to be part of his job. “The main goal will be to draw attention to the ridiculous hypocrisy of the liberal mainstream media and to push back against them,” he said. No one in the Trump Administration had coördinated this plan with him, he added; he saw it as his patriotic duty. The media, he said, “lambastes Trump no matter what he does. Everyone knows Obama had a bigger crowd at his Inauguration. Literally, who gives a shit? It’s just pretension and condescension, on the media’s part, to make a big deal of it.” Wintrich planned to move to DC as soon as he found an apartment. He relayed what a friend who also works in conservative media had recently told him: “You were brought in to troll the press corps, and you’d better troll hard.” For a moment, Wintrich looked overwhelmed. Then he opened his eyes wide, took a deep breath, and shrugged. “Let’s see what happens,” he said.
Andrew Breitbart, Stephen Bannon’s collaborator in right-wing tabloid journalism and the founder of Breitbart News, often reiterated a maxim: “Politics is downstream from culture.” When normal voters assess, say, a complex piece of legislation, they are unlikely to read the bill itself; more likely, they will base their opinions on how the bill is portrayed by their friends and Facebook friends, by celebrities, and in the media. In his 2011 memoir, Breitbart summed up his position, writing, “The left wins because it controls the narrative. The narrative is controlled by the media. . . . I am at war to gain back control of the American narrative.”
After Breitbart’s death, in 2012, Bannon became the general of that war, and neither time nor power has tempered his view. “It’s going to get worse every day for the media,” Bannon said last month, at CPAC, the annual conference of the American Conservative Union. “They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has. . . . If you think they’re gonna give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.” According to the Washington Post, Bannon once included that paper, the Times, and NPR on a list of “enablers” of Islamist jihad. He now refers to the media, with monotonous insistence, as “the opposition party.”
Trump also paints his relationship with the media as one of mutual antagonism, but it’s actually closer to codependency. For decades, he has derided critical press coverage about him as deceitful or unfair, yet he eagerly consumed it, participated in it, and profited from it. “I read a lot,” he recently told the journalist Michael D’Antonio, adding, “When I say I read a lot, I’m talking about current reading of the press and the media.” During last year’s Republican debates, when Trump stood onstage flanked by governors and senators, many pundits noted that he was one of the few Presidential candidates with no political experience. But, if a Presidential campaign is viewed as a self-branding contest that plays out across TV, print, and social media, then Trump had a far more impressive track record than any of his opponents.
Trump’s recent excoriations of the press—“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”—have been consistent with the rhetoric he used throughout his campaign. Last May, he held a press conference at Trump Tower, during which he repeatedly maligned the assembled reporters as “sleazy” and “dishonest.”
“I think you’ve set a new bar today for being contentious with the press corps, kind of calling us losers to our faces and all that,” David Martosko, of the Daily Mail, said. “Is this what it’s going to be like covering you if you’re President?”
“Yeah, it is,” Trump responded. Such clashes with the media, both in person and online, may have been motivated by Trump’s feeling that he was being underestimated as a candidate. Yet he also seemed to be operating on several overlapping assumptions: that an arbitrary exercise of power would make him look strong; that he would benefit from setting up the mainstream media, one of the most disliked institutions in the country, as a foil; that he could lie more effectively if he continued to assault the very notion of facticity; and, perhaps most important, that conflict boosts ratings.
Just a few weeks into the tenure of the first reality-star President, the drama in the White House is already at mid-season-cliffhanger levels. John Roberts, who covered the White House for CBS News, then went to CNN, and is now the White House correspondent for Fox News, told me, “I’ve seen tension before between the press and the Administration, but I’ve never seen such constant tension.” Omarosa Manigault, a forty-three-year-old businesswoman, was once best known for her not-here-to-make-friends persona on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” (“Nobody likes you but me, Omarosa,” Trump told her, in its first episode.) In a “Frontline” interview last June, Manigault predicted that, after the election, “every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump.” Last month, in the hallway outside Spicer’s office, Manigault confronted April Ryan, the White House correspondent for the American Urban Radio Networks. According to Ryan, Manigault “got in my face,” threatened her, and indicated that the Administration was keeping “dossiers” on journalists they distrusted, including Ryan. Manigault, asked by the Washington Post about the incident, responded with an e-mail that read, “My comment: Fake news!”
She was echoing her boss’s favorite new meme. In his keynote address at CPAC, Trump said, “We are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake.” He singled out CNN, “the Clinton News Network,” before adding, “And I love the First Amendment. Nobody loves it better than me.” Two and a half hours later, Spicer held an off-camera meeting in his office. Reporters from Breitbart and the Washington Times were invited; those from CNN, Politico, and the New York Times tried to enter the room and were rebuffed, presumably in retaliation for their outlets’ recent reporting on Trump’s links to Russia. Last December, a
Politico reporter asked Spicer whether, as press secretary, he would ban reporters from organizations he didn’t like. “We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, that that is something that you can’t ban an entity from,” Spicer said. “That’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.”
Spicer’s skepticism of the press goes back to 1993, when he was a senior at Connecticut College. An article in the student newspaper, about smoking policies on campus, accurately cited his work on student government but referred to him as Sean Sphincter. “Maybe I am not all that familiar with the production of a ‘newspaper,’ but I am really not sure how this can be explained as unintentional,” Spicer wrote in a letter to the paper’s editors. “The First Amendment does uphold the right free speech [sic] and a free press, which I respect, however this situation goes beyond the bounds of free speech. . . . If the paper is indeed in the habit of using professional standards, maybe they should start to write and report like professionals.”
In past Administrations, the President has usually been too busy with matters of state to hang on his press secretary’s every word. This is one of the main reasons that press briefings exist. In the nineteenth century, most Presidents briefed reporters themselves, on an infrequent, ad-hoc basis. By the nineteen-twenties, doling out information had become a full-time job, and Herbert Hoover became the first President to hire a secretary whose responsibilities were solely press-related.
President Trump, by most accounts, is rarely too busy to watch TV, especially when he is the topic. “Look at his daily schedule, and you’ll notice how few events are held between 1 and 2 p.m.,” the radio correspondent told me. This is the hour during which Spicer almost always conducts his briefings. The correspondent continued, “I sometimes feel like I’m too busy to go to the briefings, and going to them is my job. The thought that the President of the United States might take the time to sit through an entire briefing, much less all of them, is, frankly, mind-boggling.” Another correspondent pointed out how often press aides deliver notes to Spicer while he’s at the lectern, and how obediently Spicer seems to respond to the notes’ directives, cutting a response short or abruptly ending a briefing. The reigning theory is that the notes are transcribed messages from the President, watching live from elsewhere in the building.
In Washington, Wintrich checked into the Hay-Adams Hotel, which is situated a block away from the White House and is a favorite place for DC insiders to see and be seen (although perhaps not quoted—the lower-level bar is called Off the Record). There he met up with his boss, Jim Hoft, who would accompany him into the briefing room the next day, and with two filmmakers from Chicago, who planned to document their arrival. “I hate travelling, but I had to be here for this,” Hoft said. “The Gateway Pundit, this blog I started in my basement, made it all the way to the fucking White House. Are you kidding me? This is gonna be so epic!”
Hoft told me that, shortly after the election, he e-mailed “Trump’s people, and they encouraged us to apply” for press credentials. He didn’t specify which people, but he has known Bannon, now Trump’s top aide, for years, and Spicer tweeted a link to a Gateway Pundit story, about voter fraud, as far back as 2012. (The story turned out to be false.) From the hotel, Wintrich e-mailed Hope Hicks, Trump’s director of strategic communications, and got a response within three minutes. “She’s incredible,” Wintrich said. “And gorgeous, obviously. I hope I can convince her to be my friend.”
Over dinner at a nearby steakhouse, Hoft and Wintrich brainstormed about what they might ask the next day. “Just make sure it has ‘fake news’ in it, Lucian,” Hoft said, passing him a notepad. “Every question you ask with the words ‘fake news,’ you get a ten-dollar bonus. We’ll add that to your contract.”
Wintrich, sipping a Martini, jotted a few notes. “Sean! Over here, Sean!” he said, pretending to raise his hand. “In the past month alone, there have been at least twenty fake-news stories in the failing New York Times. Does fake news like this get in the way of the President’s ability to proceed on policy?”
Hoft cackled loudly enough to startle a woman at a nearby table. “That’s fucking hilarious,” he said. “Should we do something about ‘SNL,’ maybe?”
“A follow-up, Sean, if I may?” Wintrich said. “Do you think that the failing show ‘Saturday Night Live’ will be cancelled, or can it be made great again?”
“That’s hard-core,” Jeremy Segal, one of the filmmakers, said.
“Genius,” Hoft said. He finished his steak, ordered a slice of banana cream pie, and asked Wintrich whether he wanted another Martini. “Lucian, when we’re out together, I pay for everything. You know that, right?”
“That’s very kind of you,” Wintrich said.
Andrew Marcus, the other filmmaker, said, “The big decision you have to make is how much of a troll you’re willing to be.”
“He’s there to troll,” Hoft said.
For a moment, Wintrich seemed to get cold feet. “Should we have a couple of backup questions that are specifically about policy?” he asked, tentatively.
“Policy schmolicy,” Hoft said.
The next morning, at the hotel, Wintrich’s hair was fashionably mussed, and he wore a navy suit and a tie printed with elephants in several pastel colors. Hoft, who is tall and blond, was in a black suit and a yellow Trump-brand tie. They had just learned that Spicer’s daily briefing had been cancelled. Instead, President Trump would host a joint press conference with Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, who was at the White House for a state visit. “We’re scrapping the questions we worked on last night and finding ways to go after Trudeau instead,” Wintrich told me. “For instance, Trudeau apparently loved Castro. Fawned over him.”
Hoft, sitting at an antique wooden desk before an open laptop, read from the statement that Trudeau had delivered after Fidel Castro’s death: “ ‘The Cuban people had a deep and lasting affection for El Comandante.’ Is this a fucking joke?” Then, on his computer, he clicked on a headline: “Trump Claims America Should Never Have Given Canada Its Independence.” The post, on a site called the Burrard Street Journal, purported to quote a Trump tweet that included the hashtag #MakeCanadaAmericanAgain. “Is this real?” Hoft said. “I follow the news. I feel like I would have heard about this.” It seemed obvious that the Burrard Street Journal—whose logo is “BS Journal,” and whose other top headlines included “Alex Jones Selected to Host White House Correspondents’ Dinner”—was a news-satire site. But Hoft spent several minutes vacillating. He Googled “Make Canada American Again” and saw that no mainstream papers—the kind that he and the President had taken to calling “fake news”—had picked up the story. “It must be bullshit,” he said. “God, I hate bullshit sites.”
Outside the hotel, Wintrich lit a cigarette for the walk to the White House. As he and Hoft lined up at a Secret Service checkpoint, waiting to be issued gray temporary passes, several correspondents wearing red “hard passes” were waved past the line. “Hard pass” is one of many press-corps shibboleths. “Pool,” “spray,” “gaggle,” “lid”: until you learn the definitions, they have the cumulative effect of making you feel as if you’d slipped into a “His Girl Friday” parody, with hardboiled journalists speaking in nonsense colloquialisms. A hard pass is a status symbol, allowing a White House staffer to gauge a reporter’s seniority with one quick glance clavicleward. You can also take it home, whereas the temporary passes have to be dropped through a metal slot on the way out, an infantilizing gesture reminiscent of returning a school hall pass.
Few of Trump’s press staffers had any previous experience, and the logistics were in disarray. “There’s an adjustment period with any new Administration,” a producer from a foreign news service told me, as we waited at the security checkpoint. “But with this one it can be hard to tell what’s just incompetence and what’s them intentionally messing with us.”
Even on days when no televised briefing is scheduled, members of the press corps use the briefing room as a common space, chatting in the narrow hallways or working from one of the blue folding chairs. There’s also an adjacent warren of tiny cubicles and audio-editing bays, and a kitchenette with a Keurig coffeemaker, a mini-fridge, and two vending machines that sell Rice Krispies Treats, Snyder’s pretzels, and cans of Bumble Bee tuna. (“Who would be tempted by vending-machine tuna?” I heard someone ask.) The press secretary’s office is upstairs, less than a hundred yards away. Reporters harangue him at all hours via e-mail or Twitter, and they sometimes congregate in the hallway outside his office. Inevitably, the close quarters lead to mutual resentment. In one particularly hostile press conference, in 1973, Richard Nixon was asked about his antagonistic relationship with reporters. “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger,” Nixon responded. “One can only be angry with those he respects.”
One day during my time in the West Wing, a group of reporters were standing outside Spicer’s office when Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon emerged. Some reporters tried to ask them about the Administration’s alleged ties to Russia. Priebus walked away without saying a word. As Bannon left, he smiled and said, “The opposition party, all lined up.”
Hoft and Wintrich, after clearing security, walked past the North Lawn and entered the briefing room. Hoft sent a message to his niece: “This is your favorite uncle texting you from the White House!!!!,” followed by a string of emoji hearts. Then he and Wintrich made their way to the podium, which was empty. They stood behind the lectern, with the official White House seal in the background, and posed for a photo, both wearing half grins and making “OK” hand gestures. When they sat down again, Wintrich posted the photo on Facebook, captioning it with two emojis—an American flag and a frog. (In some corners of the Internet, the “OK” gesture is associated with Pepe the Frog, a once-harmless cartoon that was co-opted by the alt-right.) About an hour later, Media Matters, a left-wing nonprofit devoted to “correcting conservative misinformation in the US media,” published the photo, along with a lengthy blog post about Wintrich headlined “A Dangerous Troll Is Now Reporting from the White House.”
The story of the day was the scandal gathering around Michael Flynn, the national-security adviser. The Washington Post had reported four days earlier, and Flynn had admitted, that he might have had conversations with Russian officials. Some anonymous White House staffers were indicating that Flynn would soon be fired—“The knives are out,” an official told CNN’s Jim Acosta—while other staffers were saying the opposite. The President had not yet commented. In a few minutes, he would face the press corps on live TV. It was a scenario out of a journalism textbook: an opportunity to hold the President’s feet to the fire, to ask him what he intended to do about the Flynn situation.
Hoft and Wintrich, continuing to hone their questions about Castro, seemed oblivious of the mounting tension. Hoft chatted with a French correspondent, who asked which organization he was with. “A big Web site in the Midwest called the Gateway Pundit,” he said. “Very, very large.”
“Oh, you’re from the Midwest—that’s why you’re so friendly,” she said.
When the President hosts a visiting head of state for a bilateral press conference, the event is sometimes held in the East Room, the closest thing the White House has to a Versailles-style ballroom. The reporters were escorted into a white-marble hallway lined with oil portraits of recent Presidents and First Ladies. “Holy shit, Lucian, look at this,” Hoft said, standing before Hillary Clinton’s portrait. During the campaign, the Gateway Pundit’s coverage of Clinton included the headlines “Dental Expert: Hillary Clinton Is Suffering From Serious Gum Infection and Immune Disorder” and “Breaking: Top Physician: Hillary Clinton Has Parkinson’s Disease.” Hoft and Wintrich posed in front of the portrait, making the “OK” gesture.
In the East Room, unlike in the briefing room, the White House dictates the seating arrangement for the American press. On each gold-colored chair was a white piece of paper with the name of an outlet: the Times next to the Christian Broadcasting Network, the AP next to Breitbart. Hoft and Wintrich couldn’t find any seats for the Gateway Pundit, so they sat in those reserved for the Qatari network Al Jazeera and RT, which is funded by the Russian government. “Everyone calls us Putin’s puppets anyway, so we might as well embrace it,” Hoft said.
The front row was reserved for TV correspondents—Kristen Welker, of NBC News, and five broad-shouldered men. They stood on wooden risers, just a few inches of air separating one from the other, and prepared for their TV appearances, or “hits.” As the President’s arrival drew near and the room got quiet, the correspondents faced their respective cameras, doing their best to ignore one another, and began to speak—first, one at a time, then all at once, like an orchestra tuning up before a concert:
“. . . I would be surprised if he doesn’t get some questions about . . . ”
“. . . does the President still have confidence in his national-security adviser . . . ”
“. . . apparently had discussions with the Russian ambassador . . . ”
“. . . Flynn is in hot water . . . ”
In press-corps argot, a bilateral press conference is a “two and two”: the visiting head of state calls on two foreign reporters, and the President calls on two members of the White House press corps. Previous Presidents have usually called on the Times, major TV networks, or wire services such as the Associated Press and Reuters. In Trump’s first two bilateral press conferences, he gave one question to Reuters and three questions to right-leaning outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch: Fox News, Fox Business, and the New York Post. “Let’s see who he calls on today,” one correspondent said. “National Enquirer, maybe? Whoever it is, they’d better fucking ask about Flynn.”
After Trump and Trudeau made brief remarks, Trump’s first question went to Scott Thuman, of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns dozens of TV news affiliates across the country. According to Politico, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had struck a deal with Sinclair during the campaign: in exchange for increased access to Trump, Sinclair agreed to air footage of the candidate uninterrupted by commentary. (Sinclair denied this.) Thuman asked about the relationship between Trump and Trudeau, given their “philosophical differences.”
Trump’s second question went to Kaitlan Collins, a twenty-four-year-old reporter with the conservative Web site the Daily Caller. This was the press corps’s last chance to ask about Flynn. Several reporters craned their necks to get a look at Collins. “President Trump,” she began, “now that you’ve been in office and received intelligence briefings for nearly one month, what do you see as the most important national-security matters facing us?”
Many of the reporters were unable to mask their displeasure in person; on Twitter, the reactions were even stronger. After the press conference, Hunter Walker, of Yahoo News, tweeted, “Hearing reporters gripe about the lack of Flynn questions now: ‘I’m just embarrassed for us.’ ” Collins and Walker engaged in a brief public spat, tweeting barbed remarks at each other from opposite ends of the White House. Later that day, one of Collins’s colleagues at the Daily Caller compiled the comments of Walker and other correspondents in a post headlined “7 Butthurt Reporters Who Should Be Deported.”
Before Collins left the East Room, Julie Pace, of the Associated Press, approached her and asked, “Did someone tell you what to say?”
“I found that offensive,” Collins told me later. “A girl from the press office did mention that I would get to ask a question, but of course she didn’t tell me what it should be.” Collins pointed out that, at Obama’s first press conference, in 2009, he was asked, by a Times reporter, “What has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving in this office?”
“Look, I guess I could have phrased it differently, but I do stand by my question,” she continued. “Regular people, two years from now, will not remember Michael Flynn’s name. They will remember if we get into a war with North Korea, which is why I asked about national security.”
Back at the Hay-Adams, Hoft was having a conversation, on speakerphone, with a Gateway Pundit blogger. Wintrich was too distracted to participate; he was curled up on the bed with his laptop, in a swoon of self-Googling. Since the Media Matters post had been published that afternoon, he had also been written about on Heat Street, and had received offers to appear on “Tipping Point with Liz Wheeler” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” The Times published a piece about Wintrich—“White House Grants Press Credentials to a Pro-Trump Blog”—and, that night, Wintrich filed his rebuttal: “Carlos Slim’s Anti-Trump Blog, ‘The New York Times’, Attacks Gateway Pundit.”
After the phone call ended, Hoft and Wintrich took an elevator down to Off the Record. Hoft ran into an old friend, Sam Nunberg, a lawyer and former Trump adviser, who was spending much of that day at the bar, drinking with political reporters.
“Remember me?” Hoft said.
“Of course,” Nunberg said. “You’re part of the pro-Trump fake-news spectrum, somewhere between Breitbart and Drudge.” Hoft rolled his eyes, let out a loud laugh, and said, “Oh, fuck off, Sam.”
Hoft ordered a lemonade and took a phone call from Julia Hahn, who was once Bannon’s protégée at Breitbart News and now works with him in the White House. “Aw, that’s so sweet of you,” Hoft said. “Tell Steve I said hello, would you?” He hung up. “Just calling to say she’s a fan,” he said.
That night, Flynn resigned, resulting in a blizzard of banner headlines. Neither Hoft nor Wintrich noticed right away—Hoft was on a flight back to St. Louis, and Wintrich was engaged in a social-media battle with a progressive blogger. Before Hoft left for the airport, I told him that he should expect to hear from a member of The New Yorker’s fact-checking staff. “Oh yeah, just like at the Gateway Pundit,” Hoft said. “We’ve got a huge department of full-time fact-checkers.” He laughed so hard that he nearly spilled his lemonade.
The day after Kaitlan Collins and Hunter Walker’s Twitter feud, they sat near the back of the briefing room, making genial small talk. April Ryan arrived fashionably late, and people stood to let her get to her seat. Just before the briefing was to begin, a short nineteen-year-old named Kyle Mazza darted across the room, staking out a prime position in an aisle near the front. Mazza is a new-media Goyal, a floater among floaters. He is the sole employee of a network he calls UNF News, or Universal News Forever (News), which owns no bandwidth on TV or radio.
Jim Acosta, near the podium, stood and delivered a hit. “I think the age-old question—‘What did the President know and when did he know it?’—that is going to be asked of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer here,” he said. His comments seemed directed as much at the reporters in the room as at the CNN viewers at home. Sitting down in his front-row seat, he said loudly, “Should we get Sinclair and the Daily Caller to move up to the front? If they’re gonna go first anyway, it might make things easier.” Collins stared straight ahead, avoiding eye contact. A radio reporter, from his seat, spoke into a microphone about “the anger in this room.
A sliding door opened, and Spicer approached the lectern. Apart from camera shutters, the room fell silent. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said. “I can sense the love in the room.”
His first question went to ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who asked, “Can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?”
“I don’t have any—there’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period,” Spicer said. He went on to insist that the journalists focus on the source of the leaks, not on their content. Later, when a Reuters reporter asked a tough question about Russia, Spicer answered tersely and then Goyaled, calling on a reporter from a libertarian blog via Skype.
The next day, the President held another two-and-two, this time with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump’s two questions went to the Christian Broadcasting Network and to Townhall. On the way back to the briefing room, three cameramen stopped outside for a cigarette.
“Who’s gonna get the next question at one of these?” one of them said. “Cooking Light? Maybe Car and Driver?”
“At least the Israeli press got to ask tough questions,” another said. “I guess Israel’s still a democracy.”
Inside the briefing room, the lectern had been cordoned off with a velvet rope, and a sign warned against posing on the podium. Evidently, someone in the press office had noticed the Gateway Pundit’s photo. I took a picture of the sign and texted it to Wintrich and Hoft.
“HAHAHAHAHAHA,” Wintrich texted back.
“Is that photoshopped?” Hoft responded. “Real?”
Wintrich did some apartment hunting, then took a bus back to New York. I had an extra day in DC, so I decided to attend one last briefing. When I arrived at the briefing room, around 11 a.m., the reporters were in a frenzy.
“The President just said he was going to do a press conference.”
“He is? When?”
“In an hour, I think? He just said it, out of nowhere.”
“Does he know that ‘press conference’ means he has to take questions? Like, from multiple people?”
The reporters lined up outside the East Room. Kyle Mazza strolled by, carrying two cans of vending-machine tuna. Because this press conference had been scheduled with no advance notice, the seating in the East Room would be a free-for-all. As the reporters were led down the marble hallway, Mazza pushed through the pack and dove into a front-row seat.
Trump had never delivered a solo press conference as President. He had taken questions in the two-and-two format, but had not faced a sustained back-and-forth with the press corps. “Is he going to take questions, or just make us sit here like props?” a reporter sitting next to me said. “He has to take questions, right? Then again, if the purpose is to belittle us . . . .”
Trump entered, made some introductory remarks, and then said, “Prepare yourselves. We’ll do some questions.” The correspondents sighed in relief and looked down, reviewing their notes. “Unless you have no questions—that’s always a possibility,” Trump added. It was a joke, but nobody laughed.
Within minutes, it became clear that Trump intended to deliver not so much a press conference as an anti-press conference. “I’m making this presentation directly to the American people, with the media present—which is an honor, to have you this morning—because many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth,” he said. The sentence contained one misstatement—it was actually afternoon—which was the first of dozens of misstatements, ranging from the trivial to the risible (“I never get phone calls from the media”). He was asked several times whether his campaign had any links to Russian officials, and he denied the charge in various ways: “Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don’t speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn’t, but I just have nobody to speak to. I spoke to Putin twice.”
As reporters asked questions, Trump rated their performances in real time (“Not a simple question, not a fair question”; “That was very professional and very good”), pitted them against each other (“Should I let him have a little bit more? What do you think, Peter?”), and, like a power-drunk Merlin, ordered them to stand or sit, speak or go silent. Reporters, apart from venting their frustration on Twitter, had no choice but to sit silently and take the abuse. Perhaps the most remarkable moment was an exchange between Trump and April Ryan: in a span of three minutes, Trump likened American cities to Hell twice, and asked Ryan, an African-American reporter, if the African-American members of Congress were “friends of yours.”
Near the end of the press conference, during a moment of crosstalk, Mazza spoke up and asked about Melania Trump. “She does a lot of great work for the country,” Mazza said. “Can you tell us a little bit about what First Lady Melania Trump does for the country?”
“Now that’s what I call a nice question,” Trump said, jabbing a finger in Mazza’s direction. “Who are you with?”
“UNF News,” Mazza said.
“Good, I’m going to start watching,” Trump said.
I texted Wintrich to ask if he was watching the press conference. “SO FUCKING GOOD,” he texted back. “Incredibly disappointed I wasn’t there for it.” It had been an opportunity to attack the mainstream media on the biggest possible stage, and he had missed it. When we talked about it later, Wintrich said that he still regretted missing the performance. But, even if he had been there, his skills as a troll might have been superfluous. After all, the man in control of the press conference was the world’s most gifted media troll, the President of the United States. ###
[Andrew Marantz is a Writer/Editor at The New Yorker. In addition to The New Yorker, his articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Journal and Harper's magazine. Marantz was a Royce Fellow at Brown University where he received a BA (religious studies and literary arts) and he received an MA (journalism) from New York University.]
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