Since Donald Trump took office, some things have remained constant — like the never-ending glut of news stories spilling out of the White House followed by calls to “find the leakers.”
But behind the scenes, reporters working the White House beat say covering the Trump administration has entered a new chapter that is, in some cases, more challenging than ever.
Trump’s inner circle has solidified, and the president is increasingly acting on his own. Meetings are getting smaller, reducing the number of people with proximity to information. Top officials, some who acted as relatively helpful press gatekeepers, like former communications director Hope Hicks, have left without replacements. And, after back-and-forth hostile leaks between the White House and State Department under Rex Tillerson, reporters are now dealing with National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, kindred spirits who are also more discreet.
All the while, Trump’s behavior is becoming more and more erratic, and White House reporters say it’s becoming harder to know what’s going on — not like it was ever easy. (Case in point: the president’s surprise decision Thursday to pardon far-right commentator Dinesh D’Souza followed by off-the-cuff comments that he is considering pardoning Martha Stewart and commuting the sentence of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.)
One issue for White House reporters in recent months has been an exodus of staffers who in some cases have not been replaced. “I always describe having sources in this White House as being like adopting a terminally ill rescue dog,” said one White House reporter. “As soon as you get it to trust you, it dies.”
It’s not as though the White House has suddenly become disciplined with its media strategy. Plenty of people inside the administration are still talking out of school. There is a sarcastic joke among reporters and White House officials that every new departure of an official known to speak candidly to the press — like Steve Bannon — will finally end all that leaking. (It never does.)
Still, some reporters say that they have noticed a heightened sense of nervousness in the building — and that their sources are more cognizant of their phrasing so as to not sound identifiable in stories. Axios even spoke to one White House official who copped to employing other colleagues’ idioms in order to throw off the scent.
The White House, for its part, has continued its quest to find those speaking to the press, particularly after the leak of comments in a private meeting made by White House aide Kelly Sadler that Sen. John McCain’s opinion didn’t matter because he would die soon. CNN reported that the White House is considering shrinking its communication team in the coming weeks, and sources familiar with the matter have speculated the administration may make cuts simply to purge disliked staffers and make an example.
For all the talk of leaking, the daily reality is that officials in the White House, like in any administration, speak privately with reporters all the time and orchestrate sanctioned background discussions. Last week, Trump falsely accused the New York Times of using a phony source in a story about North Korea, when that source was in fact Matthew Pottinger, the top official for Asia on the National Security Council, who was plopped by the White House in front of reporters “on background” as a senior White House official.
But reporters say that another dynamic has emerged that has made things more difficult: the shift in recent months toward a focus on national security and foreign policy over domestic issues. In the administration’s early days, tension between the State Department and the White House had helped reporters peel back the curtain, but now reporters say the national security apparatus is more buttoned up.
“Pompeo is CIA. Bolton is militant about leaks, and you’re not going to get a leaky National Security Council staff. It’s just fucking harder reporting,” said one White House reporter. “It’s not the old, ‘Let’s talk to some goofy member of Congress and get them to tell us what Trump said in a wacky meeting.’ You’re dealing with real shit.”
Reporters added that, whatever the topic, the daily slog of stories had gotten somewhat out of control.
“I think part of it is that it was unsustainable to write insider accounts of every day, every week, etc.,” said one White House reporter. “It is harder now, but 18 months in, it's like, you can’t document every single nutty turn of the screw.”
The administration has also become increasingly siloed, and gone are the days when officials could stride into any meeting they wanted, which reporters say makes information harder to come by.
“My sense is that Trump is now shutting a lot of staff out and just doing whatever he wants,” said one White House reporter.
Other reporters, who, like their White House sources, opted to speak anonymously, say that not much has changed in reporting on the administration — it’s just that Trump is acting more on his impulses.
“He consistently undercut his own staff publicly and privately, even to those ‘in the loop,’” said one White House reporter. “So same shit, different day? Just a matter of degrees.”