White House correspondents often describe Joe Biden’s first 100 days through the lens of policy — Covid-19 relief, immigration, voting rights, racial justice.
That in and of itself is a change from the comparable period of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, whose tenure was marked by endless palace intrigue, frequent leaks and unceasing combat with those assigned to cover him.
Deadline spoke separately with White House correspondents at six major networks — Cecilia Vega of ABC News, Nancy Cordes of CBS News, Kaitlan Collins of CNN, Peter Doocy of Fox News, Geoff Bennett of NBC News and Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour — to talk about covering an administration that has, from the start, been a world of difference from the past four years.
Joe Biden Gives Congress A Speech That Could Have Come Straight From Aaron Sorkin, Or LBJ: Review
CECILIA VEGA: The [inauguration] speech was different. It wasn’t “American carnage,” and the tone was different. There was an emphasis on bipartisanship. He projected image that we’re returning to “Washington normalcy.” And then we came back to the White House, and there was a press briefing, and it was a press secretary who was answering questions.
GEOFF BENNETT: The degree to which President Biden and Vice President Harris and their top aides sought to model good public health behavior, I think was the most dramatic change. And then in terms of the quality and veracity of the information that was provided, that was vastly different, and President Biden himself has said that when it comes to the pandemic he puts science first. And that’s just objective fact that that’s precisely what they’ve done… In terms of how we, how we cover the White House, I think the fundamentals are still the same. … The elements of good journalism remain the same, asking the tough questions and trying to hold them to account.
KAITLAN COLLINS: I think this was Biden’s first full week in office, it was a Monday, and I’d gone upstairs to introduce myself to some of the press aides, and I was walking back down and it was this hallway where you never ever see principals even walking, much less the president. And there was President Biden, walking through to go back to the residence to have dinner around 7 p.m. And I had never actually met President Biden yet, because I didn’t cover the campaign. I was still covering the Trump White House. And so I just called him and I said, “I am Kaitlan Collins. I work for CNN. I am going to be covering you.” And we just had a few moments where we spoke, and I asked him a few questions on the record about Trump’s impeachment that was coming. And there are moments like that where you run into the president in the hallway, and it reminds you why you love to do the job that you do. … By the way, he doesn’t walk down that hallway anymore.
PETER DOOCY: Within the first couple days that the president got there, [he said] “I know that Peter is always going to have a tough question with an edge to it, but I like him anyway.” Because ultimately, that means that the leader of the free world knows you’re going to ask him a tough question, but it’s not going to be some unfair or out of bounds or too much kind of a thing. It’s going to be something that he can walk away from. He understands that he’s responsible to answer things like that and no matter how hard it is, [there are] no hard feelings.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I would think that the moment that we knew that things were going to be different was twofold, one when President Biden told his staff that he would not tolerate any sort of disrespect or any sort of culture of negativity of unprofessionalism. And that was a real sign for the people that were working for him, but I also think for journalists that this was going to be a president who is really going to be pushing to try to have a respectful atmosphere… I think the second thing that comes to mind is the tone of the press briefings. From the very first moment [Press Secretary] Jen Psaki went to the podium, she acknowledged that she was trying to do a reset and have a respectful relationship with the press. It doesn’t mean we haven’t had tense moments with this White House. It doesn’t mean that reporters haven’t pushed her on questions, and she hasn’t tried to spin us. But there was from the very beginning a feeling that this was going to be a White House communications shop and press secretary that was not going to try to make reporters the opposition party in the same way that President Trump did.
NANCY CORDES: The biggest challenge right now is that it’s difficult to meet sources face to face, difficult to line up lunches and dinners and source meetings because officials from this White House are understandably being very cautious in the midst of a pandemic. They hardly have meetings with each other in person. They do a lot over the phone, they do a lot over Zoom, and they’re cautious about meeting reporters or really anybody outside the White House in person as well.
DOOCY: The administration has been very disciplined. They have not had anything come up yet that has knocked them off the message they want to get out that day, for more than a couple of hours. And so it seems like they looked at the calendar, back in the transition, and said, “OK, we got until April and the first 100, day by day, we want to do this, we got this executive order this day, we can make this trip here, we go can talk about stimulus here.” They’ve been doing it. We see Biden for a few minutes on camera, when we see him. Usually if it’s at the White House, it’s just him and an aide from his office, and then the press in a big room, and that’s it. Sometimes he takes questions. Sometimes he doesn’t. Jen Psaki has been great about kind of fielding all topics. But so far, the biggest change is just that they don’t have to react to anything that they don’t want to because they control the bully pulpit. Nothing is knocking them off their game so far.
CORDES: In many cases you have people working in the Biden administration who are old hands from the Obama days. They know what works. They know what didn’t work, and they are executing on a plan and they’re determined to show that they are the polar opposite of the Trump administration. I think that’s part of the reason they were reluctant at first to talk about the immigration situation because they really came into this office, making an argument that they were the people who fix problems, not to create new ones. And so they’re very deliberate about how they put information out there. Obviously, as a reporter that means that I’ve got to work harder to find information that runs counter to the narrative that the administration is trying to put up there.
VEGA: Say what you will about President Trump, the president took questions, and he took questions all the time. And his people did too. They may not have given you straight answers, necessarily, but certainly you could shout question at the president at any given moment. Our access to President Biden, I would say has been significantly reduced from the past administration. There have been fewer press conferences. We had just one. There are fewer opportunities to get him in unscripted moments. A lot of that has to do with the way this White House is running in the middle of a pandemic, and that’s just the change from the Biden administration from the Trump administration.
DOOCY: He does listen at the end of the events, if he spots me in the back, to see what it is that I might be covering that day or asking about. More often than not, he will at least give us a short little answer. One that got a lot of attention a couple months ago, right at the beginning, was we found out that he had a call with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. And I asked him the one question that you would ask if you’re in there as the TV pool — what did you talk to Putin about? And he said, “You. He sends his best.” I know that he was not actually talking to the Russian president about me, and I don’t think that anybody thought that, but it was a funny thing. And I think he enjoys the tough questions, but I think he does have a sense of humor, it’s just been a tough time to show that because so many people in our country are having such a tough time right now.
BENNETT: For those of us who have covered Biden for a long time, you know that he likes to be spontaneous, he likes to talk to reporters any chance he gets. He’s known for saying what is on his mind. That has sometimes created headlines in the past when he was vice president or running for president. Now what he says is more regimented and measured. Frankly it is what you would expect in a White House that has a strong communications shop.
CORDES: There is a recognition at this White House that they have very ambitious goals, and that the path that they need to take to get there is extraordinarily narrow, especially when they can’t count on any Republican support in Congress. And so they need to keep their entire party together, which is no easy feat. You’re dealing with folks on the far left and you’re dealing with moderates, and they all have different ideas, and a stray comment can really get you off track. And so I think this White House is a very cautious, and that the president is probably more cautious than some reporters anticipated.
COLLINS: I think President Biden uses those opportunities [with the press] more to say what he really thinks. That is the one thing that I think that [Biden and Trump] do have in common. They both say what they really think. For example, when President Biden weighed in on the [Derek] Chauvin verdict [last week]. I don’t think a lot of his aides probably would have advised him to do that. Yes, the jury was sequestered, but you are weighing in before it’s actually been decided. But it was a moment where President Biden used the opportunity to tell us, genuinely, what he thought about the case and with the trial where he thought it should go. … I don’t think he dislikes the press. I think he often wants to take questions if he’s giving remarks and someone shouts a question at the end that’s off topic, he’ll typically come back to the microphone and answer it. And so I think that it’s a moment where the presidents relish where they can answer a question and try to get their message out there, even if it’s not the message formally coming down from the West Wing.
ALCINDOR: The Trump administration was so much about personalities, and the president’s kind of impulsiveness, and who he thought was a loser and a winner, and his war with the media trying to make us the opposition party. In the Biden administration, we’re still seeing in this administration, much like other administrations, the Obama administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, that spin, [saying] things in a way to make it so that this administration is seen in the best light. That is still happening. The tension between reporters and the White House is still there. We’re still pushing for answers, the White House is deciding how to answer in a way that makes the president look his best. But I think what we see now is an administration that isn’t trying to target and threaten journalists in a way that we saw the Trump administration do.
Lack Of Leaks
VEGA: It’s a million percent different in that sense. The Trump White House, they were a leaky White House, that’s for sure. And you know the leaks were often personal. People loved to gossip about their colleagues, who was in, who was out, what was the president’s mood. It was very much this color from inside the White House. That’s certainly not happening here right now. It may change. We’re only 100 days in. People get antsy. People get agitated, but definitely a much more disciplined shop.
BENNETT: His inner circle has been with him, in some cases for decades, and the people who are sort of newer to the administration, many of them came up through, if not the campaign, then the DNC, or they worked on the Hill. So there’s a certain amount of professionalism and sophistication and political savvy. And frankly it runs like an old school White House.
COLLINS: There’s always tension I think between some senior aides or certain camps of what they think the president, how we should handle a situation, but what’s going on inside is not at all similar to what was happening inside the early days of Trump, where it was basically a knife fight between these aides who did not like each other, did not like each other’s agenda, and always wanted to get the president’s ear last.
A Focus On Policy
ALCINDOR: For so much in covering President Trump, it was about the personalities. It was about people getting fired. It was about the revolving door at the White House. This time around, it’s about, what is our China policy? What is the policy that they’re that they’re handing out on climate change? We get briefings about all sorts of subjects pretty much every day. So I think for a White House reporter, it’s really been a challenge to get steeped in that policy, to know what that policy is, and then to form questions and stories based off of that policy.
CORDES: It is really gratifying to be covering big, meaty issues again like immigration, and infrastructure, and health care, and racial justice, and looking at legislation, and all the ways in which it might help Americans or it might inadvertently cause problems. It’s not necessarily always as flashy as tweets that ricochet across Washington and cause all kinds of distress and excitement, but it has a real and lasting impact on people’s lives, and tweets are pretty ephemeral. So from that perspective, it is very satisfying.
CORDES: I think that the immigration story was very difficult to cover at the start because the administration was very reluctant to provide hard numbers to reporters about the growing number of migrants and migrant children who were crossing the border. I think that they were reluctant to provide any information that would create the impression that there was a crisis or massive surge, and that went on for a few weeks where we were asking for information, and we weren’t getting it. There were some really enterprising journalists — one of my colleagues in particular, Camilo Montoya-Galvez, who were able ferret out that information. But it took a while for the administration to be kind of, be forward-facing about what was going on and to realize that actually it was going to be to their benefit, to get more information out rather than less.
ALCINDOR: One of the biggest goals that the president has right now is rooting out systemic racism, making sure equality is at the center of everything he does. And I’m really struggling with how to measure that success, because I think it’s a really hard thing to say to say whether or not a president can really tackle it in a meaningful way an impactful way, systemic racism in America…So I think that’s been something that I’ve definitely been wrestling with, is just how policy is impacting people’s lives.
Biden’s First Formal Press Conference And The Return Of Daily Briefings
COLLINS: Probably the most interesting thing that we learned from that first press conference was when President Biden was talking about his priorities, and basically was saying, ” am not going to get distracted from what my original goals were when I came to the office,” which was the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy. And that was of course in the context of guns and a lot of groups pushing the president to raise that on his priority list, and push more aggressively for that. And we’ve seen that, yes he has said he wants to address that, there are things he wants to see change, bans he wants to see put in place. But he made it pretty clear that he said he wasn’t going to change or shift from what his original goal was.
DOOCY: It did surprise me [that Fox News was not called upon] because we were the only member of the five-network TV pool that did not get on the board, and because Jen Psaki has been so good throughout the entire administration about taking everybody’s questions in the briefing room every day, including us. And with the president, he had a list in front of him that day, as the first formal press conference. We were not on it. …They have heard that we would like to be on the list next time. So hopefully that’s the case.
ALCINDOR: My sense is that immigration is going to be a place where the president is really going to have to struggle to make some hard decisions, so I feel really proud about the questions that I asked. I also feel really proud of the fact that I asked them about the filibuster and voting rights at the press conference, because for me, as a reporter I’m very interested in seeing how this administration pushes through legislation on policing, on voting rights, on a number of other things, while also not doing away with the filibuster which is getting in the way of Democrats passing a lot of the bills that they already passed in the House.
CORDES: I also asked him about the legislation that Republican legislators all across the country are trying to pass to impose new voting restrictions, and he had a very impassioned answer to that question … where he said it was un-American. So that was a powerful moment. Preparing for that press conference was challenging because with any new president, you don’t know how exactly it is going to go. …This was brand new even for those who had been covering previous administrations.
VEGA: The White House press corps in the Washington circles were criticized for not having asked more questions on Covid than we did. And the reality is that we get to ask this administration questions about Covid and everything else, every single day. We still spar over the answers often times, and whether Jen Psaki and others are answering with as much detail and information as we would like. That’s never going to change. But they have Covid briefings three times a week with Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and others, and we’re getting to ask the expert questions, and they’re bringing in economic advisors or John Kerry to talk about the environment, or others to talk about immigration. You’re able to ask the questions of the people who actually have some answers, and that’s been a big service to get information out there.
The Coming Challenges
VEGA: I think a lot of Washington thought that this was going to be a boring administration, and it is boring in that it’s slower. It’s not as chaotic. It’s not as undisciplined, but there have been a lot of big moments. The Derek Chauvin verdict was a huge pivotal moment for this White House. Vaccination accessibility as a large storyline has been a huge moment for this White House. The president pulling out of Afghanistan is a big moment.
DOOCY: I don’t know that [immigration] caught them by surprise, but it is an example of their message discipline because there’s so much pressure from the right on the vice president to go down to the border if she is going to be the point person for all things immigration, and she hasn’t done it. They think that it is better for them and whatever else they’re trying to accomplish, just to focus on whatever else they had planned that day for her trip-wise or remarks-wise, and so I don’t know whether it surprised them or not, it certainly has not changed much of what they charted out to do during the transition.
VEGA: They were warned by the past administration of how big of a problem this would be, given just the cyclical nature of immigration in the change of administrations. They were caught off guard in that they knew that they wanted to convey a morally different policy. They felt like the Trump administration on immigration handled it from an immoral perspective. But they were caught flat footed certainly in the infrastructure that they didn’t have in place. They will tell you this: children should not be held in adult detention centers like they are and have been held for weeks on end. You’re only supposed to be there for 72 hours max, and there’s so much red tape in the system that they’re not moving these kids out of these centers fast enough and into a more suitable environment for children. That shouldn’t be happening. They’ll tell you that they agree that it shouldn’t be happening, and they’ve got to figure out a way to do it faster. I’m talking to Democrats, particularly those in border states, and I think there is growing frustration with how the administration has handled and is handling this issue at the border. They very much feel like they’ve got a big problem there.
BENNETT: One thing to watch out for is the push for voting rights legislation. … The White House has expressed support for the legislation, but it’s not clear that Senate Democrats have the votes to pass it. Without that legislation, Republican legislators will be in a position to restrict voting to a point where, yes, there will be elections every two to four years, but they could potentially be moot if some of these restrictive policies are in place. And so we don’t know yet whether or how the White House will be able to channel enough support to make it happen.
DOOCY: I think it will really depend on what the next 100 days look like, how does the country bounce back from the pandemic because as the country goes, the White House goes, and the other way around. But will there be more press at the White House? Will the president do more events? Will we see him more than once or twice a day? Will he hit the road? These are all unknowns that are going to have great impact on our ability to cover him. And so I think the big challenge will be adapting to whatever comes next with Covid.
CORDES: You now have plenty of vaccine, and it’s clear that there’s going to be a significant chunk of the population that’s going to need to be convinced to take the vaccine, so how do you incentivize them? How do you get the message to them that the vaccine is safe and that you’ll be making everyone else safer if you do get vaccinated? And I think this administration is really going to be judged on whether we do manage to get to herd immunity, or not, and how quickly.