Just the other day, in one of President Donald Trump’s daily briefings on the coronavirus, ABC News’ chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl tried to get clarity on an important point: Will everyone who needs a ventilator be able to get one?
“Look, don’t be a cutie pie,” Trump said to Karl, before insisting that the administration’s response to the pandemic has been unprecedented.
Karl called it the “strangest moment I have ever experienced at a presidential news conference” — as well as a “question that still needs to be answered.”
The frequent sparring with the media, the attacks on individual reporters, the boasting about ratings should not even be all that surprising coming from Trump. They are part and parcel of his presidency. But given the gravity of the pandemic, they are still jarring to watch at the daily briefings. Stretching sometimes to two hours, they are at once a show and also a national platform for the White House to deliver essential, even life-saving information to the public. The mixture can be disorienting, yet the president’s poll numbers have risen during the crisis, with majority approval for how he is handling it.
Karl, who just published a book, Front Row at the Trump Show, said that the attacks on the media are troubling at this time in particular.
“It is troubling when information comes out from the top that is not reliable, and it’s also, by the way, I think troubling when the person with the biggest bully pulpit of all wages a sustained campaign to undermine the trust in information that comes through news media, which he has done for the entirety of his political career. To make people believe that they can’t trust what they see in a newspaper or in a television news report. It’s dangerous. This is a time when people need reliable information and need to believe reliable information.”
He added: “Donald Trump famously in 2016 told Lesley Stahl [of 60 Minutes] that he attacks the news media so that when you do a negative story on him, nobody will believe it. I mean, the stakes are a lot higher now. This is this is about whether or not you can make a decision about reopening a business, going back to work, going back to school. We need to be able to, on one hand, trust the information that is coming from official sources, and to believe credible news reports. And in a way, we see both of those getting undermined every single day.”
Karl, who is also president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, spoke to Deadline about how reporters are approaching the briefings, worries about their own safety amid a coronavirus outbreak, and why Trump’s behavior actually is predictable.
DEADLINE: The White House beat during the Trump years has been especially chaotic. But this crisis seems to have brought things to a new level.
JONATHAN KARL: It’s been an incredibly stressful time. It’s been strange. It’s unlike any story I’ve ever covered. It’s obviously an incredibly important story. But it’s also one where we’re kind of at the heart of it too. Although it’s much more extreme, it reminds me a little bit of being on Capitol Hill during the anthrax attacks [in 2001]. I was working for CNN at the time, and I was there when then Sen. Tom Daschle, his office got hit with anthrax and whole place was worried about our own safety while we were also covering the story….Here we are also simultaneously covering the story, and also, in my capacity as the president of the White House Correspondents Association, working to take steps to protect the health and well-being of the White House press corps and also to protect our ability to continue to cover this story.
DEADLINE: There are only 14 reporters in the briefing room because of social distancing. But how is it in the media workspace in the West Wing? Those are tight quarters as well.
KARL: Every news organization is sending radically fewer people to the White House on a day-to-day basis, and many news organizations are not sending anybody. I sent out a guidance about two weeks ago urging reporters to work remotely if they all can, and to only come to the White House if absolutely necessary. And working with my colleagues on the WHCA board we took a series of steps to reduce the number of people coming onto the White House grounds and into the briefing room.
And you’ll notice that there were like three distinct moments. First was the television networks agreed that they would all share video. … And then we took a step to go to every other seat, which reduced the number of people sitting in the briefings from 48 or 49 seats down to about 25 or 26. And we also at that point said there would be no more standing in the aisles or standing in the back asking questions, which is tough because I believe that more coverage, better coverage and more reporters, more organizations represented is better, but we had to do something. And then I had to put out a notice to the press corps that one of our colleagues appears to have coronavirus. And with that, we had to go to even more radically downsize, and that’s when we went to two people per row, so we would be in compliance with six-feet-apart spacing. We’re not fully compliant with the recommendations of the CDC. We should be no more than 10 people in a place. Obviously. there are more than 10 people in that room. But we are much farther apart. The other thing that we did is we worked with the [General Services Administration], which kind of runs that space. And they have agreed to do much more frequent and more thorough cleanings. Those people at the GSA are really kind of heroic. I see them there all the time. Much of the country is working from home. They’re not. They’re there working really hard to keep that space clean.
DEADLINE: The note went out about the member who might have coronavirus. Do you have any sense of how many people may have been in contact with that person or exposed?
KARL: Some news organizations took it upon themselves to self-isolate anybody who was working at the White House on the days that individual was at the White House. And the CDC interviewed our colleague and also looked at photographs from those days and, based on that, figured out who this colleague was in direct extended contact with. And then they reached out to each of those reporters and suggested to them very strongly that they should self-isolate and not come into the White House until April 2 unless than a negative test result comes back.
It has been amazing to see how, for the most part, my colleagues in the White House press corps have been, have had an attitude of, “What can we do for the greater good?” Almost across the board. The sharing of information — that is where only a few people can be in a given place at one time. And the way in which our colleagues have taken it really seriously when we recommend work remotely. There have been a couple of exceptions, like there would be in any crowd. When the people were told they have been in contact with the colleague who we suspect has coronavirus, most of those individuals immediately left the White House and are self-isolating. I say most. There are exceptions to all of this, which is frustrating and a little maddening, when an individual doesn’t take it as seriously as it should be taken. But almost across the board, it’s been great to see White House reporters work on this as a team, even though we are intense competitors, as a team trying to protect our ability to cover the story, and also our own health.
DEADLINE: How different is that briefing now with just 14 people there?
KARL: It is bizarre, it’s a little eerie, because that room, when a president is in it, is usually packed and raucous. You know, it’s a small space, and that’s a big moment when a president comes into the briefing room. And then consider the Trump era, where everything is kind of escalated. Go back and look at some of the briefings when they have a press secretary who did briefings. Look at how crowded and raucous and loud and unruly those briefings would be. Now, with just 14 people asking questions, it’s a very different atmosphere, a very different feel. That said, almost everybody who is sitting in that briefing room is representing not just themselves but colleagues who aren’t there. And we’ve come up with a system where our colleagues who are not in the briefing room on a given day can submit questions they would like to be asked. So I think, actually, in terms of substance, there’s been an ability to get a wide range of questions asked, despite there not being a wide range of reporters.
DEADLINE: Is there a good case to be made for networks not carrying these briefings live, given concerns over misinformation.
KARL: I think there is a legitimate debate to be had over whether the briefing should be carried live. I think that is a decision that needs to be made by individual news organizations. I do think it’s incredibly important to cover the briefings, and that’s a different question whether or not they should be carried live. There is real information that comes out of those briefings. There’s also been, unfortunately, all too often misinformation has come out of those briefings. And I think that is the reporter’s job to cover it and to correct the misinformation and to provide context. Whether or not they should be carried live — I don’t think there’s an overall answer to that. I think each of the television networks has to make a decision. I know what we’ve done an ABC. We will always carry them live if we feel there is news value, and there often is. Let’s face it, this is a rapidly evolving story. We will carry part of the briefing, and immediately go on with the experts to provide context and, if necessary corrections.
DEADLINE: The White House press secretary put out a tweet that said, while reporters have regularly asked for daily briefings, now that they are being held, the networks aren’t covering them.
KARL: That tweet reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how things work. Briefings have never been something that were regularly covered gavel to gavel. They are on occasion. And I would argue, this might be one of those occasions because it’s a big national crisis and the president himself is there. But that is not how briefings work. I mean, if you go back and you look, maybe it’s because this White House hasn’t done briefings for so long they’ve kind of forgotten, but if you go back and you look at the way briefings have been covered. For much of the existence of that briefing, they weren’t they weren’t televised at all. And then, by and large, the only place they were regularly televised was C-SPAN and occasionally the cable networks might dip in. Actually, in this case, I don’t really understand why she’s saying that, because these briefings are being covered live by many of the networks, including by ABC, including the cable networks. The other broadcast networks are carrying much of these briefings live, which is why you hear people questioning whether or not we should be doing it. But they are being covered. Even if they’re not on live, they’re certainly being covered by every major news organization, they’re a big part of the lead story on this on this crisis every day.
DEADLINE: Do you think the White House would have been helped by having daily briefings before this crisis unfolded?
KARL: I mean, it is not this exact question, but [it goes back to] what a briefing does and how it organizes government like the whole Mike McCurry argument [McCurry was press secretary for President Bill Clinton]. I think they would have been well served, better served, if they had been in the habit of doing regular briefings. There is something that a White House gains by the process of preparing for a briefing, getting a sense of what the stories are, how they’re perceived in the public, what kind of questions are being asked. It forces you to rethink not just your answers for the purpose of communications but what underlies those answers. So I think that the fact that this White House had literally gone a year without a briefing, a regular press secretary briefing, before this crisis hits may have been one reason why the communications, particularly in the beginning of this was less than perfect.
DEADLINE: Your book is called Front Row at the Trump Show. Do you think that Trump sees these briefings as part of his show?
KARL: Well, I think that President Trump sees his whole presidency in a way as a show. He looks very carefully at how he is being portrayed in the news media, on television, in newspapers. He tracks his ratings. Virtually every day he asks Dan Scavino, who runs his social media accounts, how many followers he has on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. He tracks that number. He looks at the ratings of the shows he is on. He counts the number of stories that are about him on the front pages of The New York Times and the Washington Post. It’s a little bit like a playwright tracking the reviews after opening night. He cares how he is perceived. Every politician does. But with Donald Trump it is to a whole other level.
DEADLINE: You said something — that even though Trump’s behavior can be erratic, it is also predictable. What did you mean by that?
KARL: On one hand, Donald Trump is erratic. He swings from one extreme to another. He governs by gut. He makes decisions on the fly. All of that would appear to make him very unpredictable on any given day. I first met him 26 years ago. I’ve covered him for a long time. And I kind of have a sense of his rhythms, even some of his most unpredictable or seemingly unpredictable behaviors, actually, look to me to be kind of predictable. Often I, you know, I feel like I know what he’s gonna do before he does it.
DEADLINE: For example, last week, when he called for reopening the country by Easter.
KARL: He’s had a few incredibly wide swings on this story, so in the beginning, there was the talk of how this would be over very soon. Remember he famously said there’s 15 cases, and I think we’ll be down to zero very, very soon. He said he was comparing this to the flu. He seemed kind of dismissive about the dangers. And then he made a very abrupt decision to do the Oval Office address and talked about how serious it was. … I think in a way those swings were somewhat predictable, because again he watched the way he is portrayed in the news media, and he was getting beat up pretty hard before that Oval Office address. And I think he saw what was going on, he saw a need to be portrayed as somebody that was on top of it all: This is a big problem, and he’s just the guy to take it on.
And then, he’s watching as the country grinds to a halt, sees what’s happening in the markets. He’s also I think frustrated about the fact that he has to remain cooped up in the White House, instead of going out doing his once or twice a week rallies. And I didn’t know that he would come out and say Easter would be the day. It makes sense now in hindsight you know he loves something that’s symbolic and brandable. But I think it was just a matter of time before he was going to rebel against these strict recommendations. [And on Sunday, Trump abandoned the Easter date and said that the White House social distancing guidelines would be extended to April 30].
DEADLINE: Is he different one-on-one?
KARL: He’s remarkably similar one-on-one. There are a few more profanities when he’s in private. But he can be remarkably charming one-on-one when you’re with him — unless he’s angry and upset, and I’ve seen him like that. Often when you’re with him, he wants you to feel good. And so he’ll praise you, praise you to the people around you. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with him where he has introduced me to people as “the great Jonathan Karl.” He wants to make you feel big because you’re there. He can be very engaging and try to really charm you. He can also turn on you in private just like he does public. But one thing that’s also, I think, notable about Donald Trump is that he — that maybe you don’t see as much in public — is he does ask people their views. He wants to know what people think. Not just the experts, anybody. He’s asked me stuff. I have seen him ask others. He does seem like he’s trying to get some inputs to go out and make his own decisions.
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