One UT Alumna’s Experience Reporting on the Trump White House

On Jan. 3, 2019, I was sitting in the cramped, close-quarters office I share with my colleagues at the ABC News booth located outside of the James S. Brady press room in the White House. Thirteen days into the government shutdown and just a few days after the New Year, the typically crowded sidewalks of the National Mall were dotted with tourists, and the crowds that form along Pennsylvania Avenue to see the White House had thinned. It was … quiet. And I made the mistake of saying that word out loud.

Over the loudspeaker, a young press aide announced, “In five minutes, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders will be giving a briefing.” There had not been a press briefing—a daily occurrence in past administrations—in weeks, and it was by all measures a slow news day for the White House. At least for a few hours, the focus had turned to Capitol Hill, where Nancy Pelosi had just been elected Speaker of the House. But back in the briefing room, a flurry of chaos erupted as photographers scrambled to set up their lights and cameras, reporters jotted down their questions and climbed over one another to sit down in the theater-style seats. Some reporters were missing due to the short notice from the White House. A correspondent from another network joked, “so last-minute, it’s like the president is about to come out.” And then, without warning, for the first time of his presidency, President Donald Trump stepped up to the podium of the briefing room.

“Hello, everybody. This is a beautiful place. I haven’t seen it,” Trump said.

I should have known better than to say the word “quiet.”

For the past year, I’ve been covering Trump’s White House as a reporter and producer for ABC News. I work with a small, tight-knit team of producers and correspondents to report on daily headlines for the network. The day begins before dawn as we prepare for Good Morning America and anticipate the likely morning tweet (or tweets). A special “ding” chimes out on my phone when the president tweets, and sometimes those notifications ring all day. I can’t tell you how many times we have had to leave dinners, parties, or family events to call an official or chase a story after a tweet popped up on our phones.

While being a reporter was always my dream job, I imagined I would go to law school after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in English and Plan II Honors in 2012. Instead, I got into Columbia Journalism School, and was lucky to land a reporting fellowship at the ABC News Washington bureau.

Now, as a member of the press corps, I’m often part of the crew of reporters who question the press secretary or yells out to the president for a comment on the pressing news of the day before he takes off on Marine One. I’ve asked the president questions, I’ve flown on Air Force One to report for the traveling press pool, and I’ve covered the president with our ABC team everywhere from Palm Beach to Brussels.
I have had a front-row seat at history-making events. We begin the day never knowing what could come next, or if we’re headed for an event that could define a generation. I’m reminded of ABC News correspondent Ann Compton being part of pool coverage on Sept. 11, meaning she was traveling with President George W. Bush to a No Child Left Behind event in Sarasota, Florida. But of course, that is not what that historic day was remembered for.

The ABC team I work with each day at the White House takes seriously the privilege of being able to ask questions of politicians at the highest levels of government. Not everyone gets to raise their hand or ask a question of Mr. Trump, and when we have the opportunity, we work hard to be clear-eyed and probing but also respectful of the office.

In the Trump White House, that has not always been easy. There are stark divides at times between the administration and the press corps. The president bristles at questions he does not like—even calling them “stupid”—and the White House has gone so far as to try to ban certain reporters.

Historically, the relationship between the press and the president has not always been chummy. President John Adams pressed for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Act to criminalize his critics in pamphlets and newsletters. President Thomas Jefferson was a champion of the press—that is, unless they were covering him. After all, presidents want to reflect a specific image and agenda, while the press wants to share facts and truth. In the world of politics, those things don’t always go hand in hand.

Even as some supporters have shouted “fake news” or jeered at those of us in the press corralled into a metal pen at Trump rallies, I stay calm, and ask them questions about their lives or the news. I hope that our straightforward coverage helps people understand we’re not trying to be divisive—we’re trying to report all sides of a story.

With a 24-hour news cycle, Twitter feeds, and increasingly shorter attention spans, the news often feels like it doesn’t stop. And with added scrutiny on the press corps, stakes are high for news outlets to get a story right. Reporters and producers who have been on this beat much longer than I are quick to point out just how different covering this White House is—perhaps it is the changing media landscape, perhaps it is this president, perhaps it is all of us, just wanting to know what in this wild political story comes next.

There’s a strange, feverish virality to coverage of this White House. Our network is always prepared to break into a special report over a major policy announcement or major White House personnel change. My first day of pool coverage was poised to be routine, until the president’s then-communications director Hope Hicks unexpectedly resigned. There was the afternoon First Lady Melania Trump took a surprise trip to see detained migrant children in Texas and chose to wear a jacket embroidered with the words: “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” on the back. It baffled the press corps, and drove an entire news cycle. You just never know what to expect. Kanye West had a confounding Oval Office appearance with the president last year, and even gave ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl a hug.

Back in the narrow, submarine-like area where the press works, there is a camaraderie among the photographers, reporters, and producers navigating the frenetic daily news cycle. We’ll pat each other on the back for a smart question or scoop. Especially when traveling, reporters will brainstorm the best questions to ask or simply help each other reflect on whatever we just witnessed. I’ll never forget basking in the weird, Nordic glow of a Helsinki evening with journalists after the president’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, reflecting on what was a surreal afternoon over Finnish beer.

I keep a diary, a little leather-bound book, where I jot down quick observations even on the most chaotic of days. I remember flying back to Washington on Air Force One after covering the president at the Nevada Republican Convention in Las Vegas in June. It was just days after the president suspended his child separation policy, and even in this era of hyper-partisan politics, the country seemed more divided and angry than ever. But from up in the air, I noted, the country looked peaceful. The states weren’t colored red or blue, instead towns and cities sparkled in the evening light and the setting sun painted a gorgeous swath of pink, violet, and yellow. And without internet, it felt, for a moment, quiet.

Then we landed. I turned on my phone’s WiFi. A white glow splashed across my phone. There went the “ding” of another Trump tweet.

Photograph by Tom Brenner



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