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White House Correspondents On What It's Like To Cover The Trump Presidency

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It seemed to start with a controversy over crowd size.

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SEAN SPICER: This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration - period - both in person and around the globe.

KELLY: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer the day after President Trump's inauguration accusing the media of deliberately underreporting the size of the crowd. That same day at CIA headquarters, the new president himself had made the same accusation.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But we had a massive field of people. You saw that - packed. I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I said, wait a minute. I made a speech. I looked out. The field was - it looked like a million, a million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there

KELLY: Now, Donald Trump had spent his campaign attacking the press. Some imagined that after he took the oath of office, he might turn the page, interact with reporters in a manner more traditionally presidential. But that day, the first full day of his presidency, Trump stood before the CIA's wall of stars honoring fallen officers, and he doubled down.

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TRUMP: The reason you're my first stop is that, as you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.

KELLY: That is how the Trump presidency began. Now as it nears the end, we have asked some of the men and women who've been writing the first draft of history to talk about what it has been like and where the relationship between the press and the presidency may go next. I'm joined by NPR's Tamara Keith, Jeff Mason of Reuters and Yamiche Alcindor of the "PBS NewsHour." Welcome, all three of you.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.

JEFF MASON: Good to be with you.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Yeah, thanks.

KELLY: I want to start by asking, was it clear to each of you from the very beginning quite how unconstrained by precedent and norms and facts this president would be and how challenging it would be to cover a president engaged in, as we just heard him say there, a running war with the media? Yamiche Alcindor, you first.

ALCINDOR: I felt like it was pretty clear that we were going to be dealing with someone in President Trump who was not going to be constrained by the facts. It was also clear that he was not going to pick his battles and make them big battles, that he was also going to go for small battles and that was part of his war. So when you saw Sean Spicer at that first White House press briefing making something up, saying something that we know was demonstratively false, we knew that we were in for a sort of ride. I will say that, of course, I didn't know how rough of a ride we were going to be because the president later on and the people around him said that they wanted to make the media the opposition party.

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TRUMP: I call it the opposition party. The media is a big part of the problem. It's really, the fake news.

KELLY: Jeff Mason, an opening thought from you.

MASON: Well, I would start by saying I was in the press pool that day and so was there for the CIA speech and then for the initial, quote, unquote, "briefing" by Sean Spicer. I put that in quotation marks because he didn't take questions. He just basically ranted at us on behalf of the president.

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SPICER: Inaccurate numbers involving crowd size were also tweeted. No one had numbers.

MASON: The impression it gave me and all of us in the pool that day was, these are the president's priorities. Like, this is what he's going to be focusing on. And it's not about kickstarting an administration to advance some of the many promises he made that many Americans who elected him in 2016 wanted to see him following through on, although he would certainly proceed to do some of that as well. But it was going to be about some of these petty arguments that Yamiche referred to and focusing on crowd size despite all evidence to the contrary of what he wanted to believe he had seen.

KELLY: Tamara Keith, how about you?

KEITH: Yeah, I would say that that day was the original sin of this presidency. The fact that the press secretary would come out and say something in the briefing room that was obviously untrue, that the president would say something that was obviously untrue meant that there was just nothing that we were going to be able to trust that they said.

KELLY: This White House has been a machine of disinformation. But, Tam, let me ask you about access. This president has been - I don't know - do you think the most accessible ever? You never have to wonder what he's thinking.

KEITH: Yeah. There is no thought that goes unuttered in President Trump's mind. He either tweets it or says it.

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TRUMP: Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens.

KEITH: The walk from the White House to Marine One was not a media event until it became a media event.

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TRUMP: So I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens.

KEITH: Now President Trump always stops and talks. You know, it's got a name. It's now called chopper talk.

KELLY: The bane of radio's existence because...

KEITH: Certainly the bane of radio's existence.

KELLY: ...It's helicopter chopper noise behind everything he says. yeah.

KEITH: The thing is it's all on his terms. He gets to choose what he answers.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: But you didn't answer my question. You didn't answer my question. Are the results only legitimate if you win?

KEITH: You know, he likes to have us shouting questions at him because it sort of feeds the narrative that we're unruly beasts and part of the opposition party. He wants the shouting.

KELLY: Jeff Mason, you know, I was going to ask, what has been your most challenging moment? And I turn this one to you because I wonder if you and I share one. We were both at the presidential palace in Helsinki for the infamous Trump-Putin press conference.

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TRUMP: Thank you. I have just concluded a meeting with President Putin.

KELLY: How did you think about - just what is your job in that moment?

MASON: Yeah. It's definitely something that will stay in my memory for a long time. He had started off the day with a tweet in which he, you know, essentially said any of the issues between the United States and Russia that have led to a weakening in the relationship are the fault of the U.S. So I believed my job in that moment was to press him on what he had been saying.

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MASON: Mr. President, you tweeted this morning that it's U.S. foolishness, stupidity and the Mueller probe that is responsible for the decline in U.S. relations with Russia. Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? And if so, what would you consider them - that they are responsible for?

TRUMP: Yes, I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago.

MASON: President Trump, of course, made the news there. But I had also asked Putin if he had wanted President Trump to win and if he had supported or directed his people to support that. And this came, you know, in the throes of the Russia investigation, and it was finally a chance to ask President Putin that. And his answer was yes.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: It was, yes. I remember that - another just stunning moment. Yamiche, you have, when you have questioned the president, famously gotten under his skin, so much that at one point a #WeLoveYamiche campaign was trending on Twitter. I want to play the moment that led to that. This is you questioning the president at a coronavirus task force briefing in March.

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ALCINDOR: You've said repeatedly that you think that some of the equipment that governors are requesting, they don't actually need. You said New York might need...

TRUMP: I didn't say that.

ALCINDOR: ...Might not need 30,000.

TRUMP: I didn't say that.

ALCINDOR: You said it on...

TRUMP: I didn't say that.

ALCINDOR: ...Sean Hannity, Fox News.

TRUMP: Come on. Come on.

ALCINDOR: You said that you might...

TRUMP: You know, why don't you people act - let me ask you.

ALCINDOR: You said some states...

TRUMP: Why don't you act in a little more positive? It's always trying to get you...

ALCINDOR: My question to you is...

TRUMP: ...Get you, get you. And you know what? That's why nobody trusts the media anymore. That's why people...

ALCINDOR: My question to you is, how is that going to impact...

TRUMP: Excuse me. You didn't hear me. That's why you used to work for the Times and now you work for somebody else. Look. Let me tell you something. Be nice. Don't be threatening.

ALCINDOR: Mr. President, my question is...

TRUMP: Don't be threatening. Be nice.

KELLY: Yamiche Alcindor, a lot of people listened to that moment, watched that moment and similar moments where the president has confronted women of color, and they see racism. And I wonder, is that what you see?

ALCINDOR: I see a president who doesn't want to answer a question and who is trying to do everything he possibly can to mislead the American people. The president has lashed out at Peter Alexander of NBC, who is a white man. He's lashed out, of course, at Jeff Mason.

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TRUMP: Don't talk to me that way. You're just a lightweight. Don't talk to me that - don't talk to - I'm the president of the United States. Don't ever talk to the president that way.

ALCINDOR: He's lashed out at Abby Philip, who is a Black woman, and April Ryan, who's a Black woman. I'm not sure if I see racism because I think more than racism is this equally nefarious agenda, which is that he does not want to take at all responsibility for his handling of this pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

KELLY: So what now? Tamara Keith, when President Trump exits the White House, do things go back to how they were?

KEITH: I just don't necessarily think that President Trump walks out of the White House, gets on Marine One and everything snaps back to the way it was four years ago. You know, just because the new administration probably isn't going to call us enemies of the people or fake news doesn't mean that we just take it easy. There will continue to be an adversarial relationship between the press and the White House. There always is. I would guess that we will not be having chopper talk. I would guess that there will not be as many opportunities. I mean, based on what we've seen from the transition, there will not be as many opportunities to question the president as we've had for the past four years. I think it is going to be different.

KELLY: Anything any of you will do differently having experienced these last four years in terms of how you cover the incoming Biden administration?

MASON: This is Jeff. I mean, one thing I won't do differently is in formulating my questions. I think it's our job regardless of who is in office. Whether it's Republican, a Democrat, a woman, a man, it's our job to ask hard questions, and it's our job to demand and push for answers. And I think that the last four years has, in many ways, strengthened the White House press corps. We will approach this new administration with the same vigor that we approached the last one. And I think that's important because it goes to neutrality, and it goes to mission. And our mission is to report the news and to get the facts.

KELLY: Jeff Mason of Reuters, Yamiche Alcindor of the "PBS NewsHour" and NPR's own Tamara Keith - three members of the White House press corps - thanks to all of you. And good luck these next four years.

KEITH: Thank you.

MASON: Thank you.

ALCINDOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.