The empty speaker podium in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

White House eyes new ‘rules’ for reporters at press conferences

Updated

Things got a little heated at Donald Trump’s post-election press conference two weeks ago, and soon after, White House officials went after CNN’s Jim Acosta in an unusual way: they tried to kick him out of the West Wing by revoking the reporter’s press pass.

CNN filed a lawsuit soon after, and a federal judge – who was appointed by Trump – sided with the network. There was a series of threats and counter-threats, but yesterday, the president’s team backed down and restored Acosta’s White House hard pass.

So, all’s well that ends well? Not exactly. The White House also unveiled a series of new “rules” yesterday afternoon, which it expects reporters to adhere to at all future press conferences.

1. A journalist called upon to ask a question will ask a single question and then will yield the floor to other journalists;

2. At the discretion of the President or other White House official taking questions, a follow-up question or questions may be permitted; and where a follow up has been allowed and asked, the questioner will then yield the floor;

3. “Yielding the floor” includes, when applicable, physically surrendering the microphone to White House staff for use by the next questioner;

4. Failure to abide by any of rules 1-3 may result in suspension or revocation of the journalist’s hard pass.

This, evidently, is how White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders intends to promote “decorum” in the West Wing, her boss’ offensive antics toward reporters notwithstanding.

I am not, and have never been, a White House correspondent, and there are plenty of media professionals who can speak to this with far more authority than me. That said, I have a strong hunch the imposition of these new “rules” isn’t going to turn out well.

Few would endorse total chaos at presidential press conferences, with reporters interrupting prepared remarks and demanding time at the podium. But the practical implications of these guidelines are awfully tough to defend.

Bloomberg News’ Steven Dennis, a longtime D.C. reporter and a widely respected Capitol Hill journalist, explained on Twitter this morning, “Under the new White House rules, if the president flat-out lies to you, you can only ask a follow-up challenging it if he agrees to let you. Otherwise [White House officials] can pull your hard pass. They can also pull your hard pass if you ask two questions instead of one.”

That may sound outlandish, but that’s what the White House’s new “rules” say.

Trump hasn’t exactly been subtle about his contempt for independent journalists, condemning them as, among other things, “the enemy of the people.” The president has also raised the prospect of American news organizations committing “treason” by publishing reports he doesn’t like.

To that end, Trump and his team apparently believe they can take some new steps to impose restrictions on how reporters can ask questions at White House press conferences, taking control of the process, and warning those who fail to honor the official new “rules” that they face the threat of losing access to the building.

This isn’t how the process is supposed to work in the United States. This president’s authoritarian instincts are once again getting the better of him.