Dana Milbank: The White House is curtailing access for all journalists
For the past 21 years, I have had the high privilege of holding a White House press pass, a magical ticket that gives the bearer a front-row seat to history.
I was in the White House the night Bill Clinton admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and the day he was impeached. I was there on Sept. 11, 2001, and the fearful days thereafter, when we were trained to use escape hoods. I watched George W. Bush make the case for the Iraq War and Barack Obama pitch his remedies for the market crash. There, too, I have witnessed the carnival-like briefings and high histrionics of Donald Trump’s presidency.
But no more. The White House eliminated most briefings and severely restricted access to official events. And this week came the coup de grace: After covering four presidents, I received an email informing me that Trump’s press office had revoked my White House credential.
I’m not the only one. I was part of a mass purge of “hard pass” holders after the White House implemented a new standard that designated as unqualified almost the entire White House press corps, including all seven of The Washington Post’s White House correspondents. White House officials then chose which journalists would be granted “exceptions.”
The Post requested exceptions for its seven White House reporters and for me, saying that this access is essential to our work (in my case, I often write “sketches” describing the White House scene). The White House press office granted exceptions to the other seven, but not to me. I strongly suspect it’s because I’m a Trump critic. The move is perfectly in line with Trump’s banning of certain news organizations, including The Post, from his campaign events and his threats to revoke White House credentials of journalists he doesn’t like.
White House officials provided me no comment for the record.
I’m not looking for pity. Trump’s elimination of briefings and other changes have devalued White House coverage anyway. But there’s something wrong with a president having the power to decide which journalists can cover him.
Now, virtually the entire White House press corps is credentialed under “exceptions,” which means, in a sense, that they all serve at the pleasure of press secretary Sarah Sanders because they all fail to meet credentialing requirements — and therefore, in theory, can have their credentials revoked any time they annoy Trump or his aides, like CNN’s Jim Acosta did.
Last year, Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, ordered the White House to restore Acosta’s press credentials, saying that the White House’s process for revoking his access (after Acosta had aggressively questioned Trump) was “shrouded in mystery.”
In response, it seems, the White House established a clear — if nearly impossible — standard: no credentials to any journalist who is not in the building on at least 90 out of the previous 180 days — in other words, seven of every 10 workdays. The White House wouldn’t provide numbers, but it appears most of the White House press corps didn’t qualify for credentials under the new standard, including regulars for The Post and the Associated Press.
The White House said it would grant exceptions for “senior journalists” who are “consistently engaged in covering the White House” and for those with “special circumstances.” Though the culling properly eliminated some who no longer needed credentials, the victims hurt most were freelance camera operators and technicians who now could lose their livelihood.
The White House, in rescinding my credentials, told me I had been in the building only seven times in the previous 180 days. (Two foot surgeries during that period kept me at home, though I never came close to the 90-day standard.)
More important is that the White House is drastically curtailing access for all journalists. Briefings have been abolished in favor of unscheduled “gaggles” ( on the record, but impromptu and haphazard) in the White House driveway. The Pentagon and State Department have done similarly.
The White House has also restricted access by allowing only one journalist from a news organization at most events, and by admitting journalists to events only if they register days in advance. This has sharply reduced journalists’ attendance at the White House — just in time for the 90-day attendance purge.
White House officials offered me and others it disqualified a lesser credential called a six-month pass. They say it will grant equivalent access, but for various technical reasons, that isn’t true.
I’ll keep covering the White House, albeit from a distance, and wait for things to return to normal — if they ever do.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.