As Donald Trump begins his first trip abroad as president, he faces a test not only of his diplomatic skills, but his willingness to fight for press access in unfriendly media environments such as Saudi Arabia.
At home, presidents and the media who cover them often butt heads. But on trips abroad, it falls to the White House staff to insist on open access for the journalists who travel with the president.
With a historically hostile relationship between Trump’s administration and the media, some journalists and veterans of past administrations are wondering whether this White House will stand up for the reporters on the trip.
“It’ll be interesting to see how this White House does that, if the pool or press corps are kept out of something they were otherwise told they’d get to participate in,” said Reed Galen, a George W. Bush advance man during the first term.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment, but Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said his group has been in regular negotiations with the White House communications team about the trip, meeting as recently as Wednesday.
“Like we would with any access issue, we outlined what was important for the press corps and they have taken those concerns down and are working on them,” Mason said. “I feel confident that they know what our needs are. And I’ve seen evidence that they’re working hard to meet those needs in advance.”
Some correspondents wonder if the team might drop the ball on press access not out of malice, but out of inexperience; it’s the first foreign trip for this team which might not be familiar with the importance of including reporters in meetings, even in places where such access is not the norm.
“One of the problems of the early months of Trump administration is that they don’t seem they should know they should be fighting for access,” said one veteran White House correspondent who has covered multiple administrations.
Every president’s staff has dealt with some issue abroad involving the press pool and a foreign government. In one infamous incident in 2010, then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs physically intervened to keep Indian security officials from closing a door and thus excluding the press pool from President Barack Obama’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. According to pool reports, Gibbs announced loudly, with photos at the time showing him pointing sternly at an Indian official, that he would pull the president out of the meeting unless the media was allowed in.
Arguing with a foreign government over something as simple as a two minute photo spray may seem petty — why create such diplomatic drama over something as simple as a photo opportunity? — but the stakes are actually higher, said Ari Fleischer, who served as former president George W. Bush’s press secretary.
“When presidents go abroad they personify the laws and values of our country, and one of those values is a free press,” Fleischer said. “Our diplomats routinely espouse the virtues of a free press around the world. So when you go to non-democratic countries that don’t have a tradition of a fully free press, the signal a president sends by how we treat our American press is a powerful statement.”
One solace to those who may have some reservations about whether the White House will advocate for the media is the fact that the administration brought on two staffers from the Bush administration to help with the advance work: Joe Hagin and George Gigicos.
“They’ve brought in a number of George W. Bush veterans to handle the logistics of the trip and those guys definitely know when to make the case for press access. If you tell me that Joe Hagin is managing the organization of something related to the White House, that’s good news,” the veteran White House correspondent said.
Josh Lipsky, who was Obama’s associate director of advance from 2010 to 2011, said that anytime there was an official photographer or a reporter from any foreign or U.S. outlet, the advance team would advocate for the press pool to be present.
“It creates difficulties both substantively and logistically, but we think it sends the right symbol for democracy,” Lipsky said.
The American media’s presence can also have an impact on the country that is being visited. In 2014 during a visit in Saudi Arabia, Lipsky had to yell at some Saudi guards to let the press through to a palace where Obama was meeting with King Abdullah. Carrie Budoff Brown, who was then POLITICO’s White House correspondent, tweeted a stream of photos of Abdullah’s desert palace, a place that most people in the country had never seen. The photos also provided information about the king’s health, which was then a closely guarded secret. In addition to showing the grandeur of the palace, her photos also revealed that Abdullah was using supplemental oxygen. Budoff Brown’s number of followers quadrupled. Abdullah died the following year.
Of the countries to be visited on this trip – which include Israel, Italy and Belgium – Saudi Arabia will be the biggest challenge, because it is the least accustomed to granting media access. But Trump may face a tricky situation in Israel, as well.
In Jerusalem, the president is expected to visit the Western Wall, a remaining portion of the old temple mount, the holiest site in Judaism. But visitors to the main portion of the wall are required to separate themselves by gender, meaning any female reporters or photographers will be barred from following Trump.
During the 2008 campaign, Lipsky said, the Obama team negotiated with the chief rabbi of Israel to give male reporters and photographers a special spot by the wall where they could take photos of the then-senator approaching. Obama then went to a place close to the partition separating then men and women, and where stools were set up on the women’s side so the female reporters could stand on them and look over. (It’s a common sight to see women standing on chairs to look into the men’s side, especially for their son’s bar mitzvahs, which are sometimes held at the wall.)
Such efforts are often appreciated by reporters, helping to create a relationship of mutual respect. And they ensure that Americans can cover their president independently, rather than relying on foreign media.
A recent Oval Office meeting between Trump and the Russian foreign minister and ambassador may have alerted the White House to the importance of having the American media present in meetings with foreign dignitaries.
The meeting was not open to the White House press pool, but a photographer for the Russian state-owned news agency TASS was present acting as an official photographer for the Russians and posted photos to wire services well before the official White House photographer did so. Those photos spread far and wide, with credits to TASS noting that no American media were allowed in. The photos proved to be newsworthy, revealing that the Russian ambassador, whose presence was not previously disclosed, was there as well.
“We just had a situation in which a presidential event was only open to a photographer for TASS. My sense is this White House has probably learned the right lesson for that,” the veteran correspondent said.
Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.