White House Fights a Familiar Enemy: The Press
As the White House reeled on Tuesday from a chaotic 24 hours, bookended by a pair of bombshell scoops raising serious questions about President Trump’s comportment in the Oval Office, the administration and its surrogates quickly settled on a blunt message: Blame the press.
“National security is put at risk by this leak and by leaks like this,” the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. He was referring not to Mr. Trump’s disclosure of intelligence to Russian leaders, but to the government officials who acted as sources for The Washington Post’s scoop about it.
Doing battle with journalists has become a frequent tactic of the Trump White House. But the conflict has been heightened this week, as aides to the president — and their supporters in the right-wing press — seek to shift focus onto questions about the use of confidential sources and the credibility of the news media, and away from concerns about Mr. Trump’s behavior.
Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who speaks frequently with Mr. Trump, floated the possibility of a daily press briefing where journalists were required to submit written questions ahead of time. Newt Gingrich, another adviser, told Politico that the White House should “close down the White House press briefing room.”
The theme was picked up late Tuesday afternoon by the president’s fund-raisers, who sent a solicitation to supporters that began, “You already knew the media was out to get us.”
“But sadly it’s not just the fake news,” the email read. “There are people within our own un-elected bureaucracy that want to sabotage President Trump.”
There is now a divide between those who express outrage at Mr. Trump’s actions, and those who express outrage at the reporting that revealed Mr. Trump’s actions — a distinction that has become increasingly stark in the bifurcated realm of cable news.
On CNN on Tuesday, as anchors reacted to a report in The New York Times that Mr. Trump in February asked the F.B.I. director, James Comey, to quash an investigation into the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, the legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin declared, “Three words: obstruction of justice.”
At roughly the same moment, the Fox News host Eric Bolling was scoffing. “So The Times reporting one thing, the president pushing back on that report,” he told viewers, referring to the White House’s denials. “Fake news, I would call it.”
The divergent responses echoed news coverage from the previous 24 hours, in the aftermath of The Post’s story Monday night about Mr. Trump’s lack of discretion with Russian officials.
On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow expressed disgust, saying, with little trace of irony, “Hyperbole is dead.” On Fox News, right-leaning commentators turned their ire toward the journalists who reported the story and the sources who spoke with them.
“If you’re a disloyal person, you sing to The Washington Post,” said Jesse Watters, a co-host of “The Five.” “If you’re a loyal person, you take it to your superior.”
Online, The Huffington Post published a photograph of Republican leaders in Congress with the all-capitals headline “Wimps in Suits.” Breitbart News wrote that “the media reacted hysterically to the news,” a common refrain among conservatives who argue that impartial journalists have turned into openly adversarial opponents of Mr. Trump. On Tuesday, writing about The Times’s story on Mr. Comey, Breitbart started its headline with the phrase “More Leaks.’’
Even Matt Drudge, éminence grise of the conservative media set, weighed in, writing on Twitter that the Post’s newsroom was “openly applauding” its “latest Trump hit.” He seemed to be referring to a tweet from a Post reporter on Monday expressing excitement about the high web traffic for the story.
That view echoes the president’s own attitude toward the press: The Times reported that Mr. Trump, in a meeting with Mr. Comey, suggested that reporters be imprisoned for publishing classified information. Inside the West Wing, the president remains fixated on his coverage, and his anger about the tumult of recent days has been primarily directed toward his communications staff.
A shake-up may be in the works. On Tuesday, Sean Spicer, the press secretary, found himself briefing reporters minutes after a report in The Mercury News in which Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Fox News anchor, openly discussed the possibility of taking his position.
“I’m a patriot, and it would be an honor to serve the country,” Ms. Guilfoyle, another co-host of “The Five,” told the San Jose, Calif., newspaper, saying that the notion of her becoming press secretary had been “raised by a number of people” in the administration.
“Sean Spicer is a very nice man,” she added. “Very tough position he’s in.” (Ms. Guilfoyle remains under contract at Fox News, and in a statement issued by the network, she declined to tip her hand. “My job co-hosting ‘The Five’ is tough to beat,” she wrote.)
The tense dynamic seemed to be crystallized on Tuesday during the closing moments of General McMaster’s briefing, when a chorus of protestations erupted after the general abruptly concluded his question-and-answer session after roughly 10 minutes.
“We have more questions, General!” a reporter shouted as General McMaster disappeared into the West Wing press office, the door sliding shut behind him.
By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM