The White House on Friday blocked a number of media outlets, including CNN and POLITICO, from an off-camera briefing with press secretary Sean Spicer, while allowing in a select group of journalists that included many conservative outlets.
The White House had earlier planned on having an on-camera gaggle with Spicer in the briefing room, but the administration later in the day changed it to a restricted off-camera gaggle in Spicer’s office.
The shift — a notable break from protocol — came as the White House is trying to contain fallout from reports that chief of staff Reince Priebus pressured the FBI to shoot down articles about frequent contact between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence officials.
Instead of hosting the typical briefing on camera in the briefing room — which in the first month has been regularly broadcast live on the major cable networks — the White House invited the pool, which on Friday consisted of Hearst Newspapers and CBS, into Spicer’s office, along with a select group of other outlets. Because of the presence of the pool, the information was still shared with the entire White House press corps.
In addition to CBS and Hearst, the White House invited NBC, Fox, ABC, One America News Network, The Wall Street Journal, McClatchy, Breitbart and Washington Times reporters to attend. Reporters from outlets including the BBC, CNN, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and POLITICO were not permitted.
In the past, White House press secretaries would sometimes host small gaggles with “expanded pools.” But the selective invitation of conservative outlets, some of whom have been more than overtly friendly to the Trump administration, is unprecedented.
White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason condemned the White House’s actions in a statement.
“The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today’s gaggle is being handled by the White House,” Mason said. “We encourage the organizations that were allowed in to share the material with others in the press corps who were not. The board will be discussing this further with White House staff.”
Reporters from the Associated Press and Time were invited to attend, but out of solidarity chose to sit the meeting out. That move garnered praise online and via the internal White House pool email list.
“Congratulations to Time and AP for not attending today’s gaggle in protest,” New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker wrote to the White House press corps email list.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier said on Twitter “a WH gaggle should be open to all credentialed orgs,” and referenced a time when CNN and the New York Times stood with Fox News when the Obama administration tried to exclude them.
According to The Hill’s White House correspondent, Jordan Fabian, deputy press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, “The pool was there, so various media mediums were represented” and that “claims that outlets were excluded are not factual.”
In a statement, CNN said, “This is an unacceptable development by the Trump White House. Apparently this is how they retaliate when you report facts they don’t like. We’ll keep reporting regardless.”
The Associated Press said in a statement: “AP believes the public should have as much access to the president as possible.”
In audio of the gaggle shared with the entire White House press corps by the radio pooler, Spicer said he chose not to have an on-camera briefing on Friday so as not to crowd out President Donald Trump’s speech at CPAC earlier that day.
“The president spoke today. As you know, we don’t generally do, we haven’t done briefings when the president’s had a major event or an event with a world leader,” Spicer said. “We put it on the schedule yesterday that we were just going to gaggle, and I mean this is something that we talked about with the correspondents’ association, about making sure that we have daily contact with you guys.”
He added, “You know, obviously the president gave a very powerful speech today and our job is to make sure that we’re responsive to folks in the media. We’re here all day. We’ve got a big staff and we want to make sure we answer your questions. We don’t need to do everything on camera every day.”
Earlier on Friday, senior administration officials pushed back against a report by CNN that Priebus asked the FBI to deny a New York Times report about campaign contacts with Russia, but the FBI declined. However, the officials confirmed that Priebus had indeed asked an FBI official about publicizing the agency’s view on the New York Times report.
In the morning background briefing, an official laid out a timeline of the communication between Priebus and the FBI, but the account from the White House has changed over the past 24 hours.
On the record, Spicer rebuked reporters saying, “What you guys have done is indefensible and inaccurate.” He also said it would have been “insane” for Priebus to not attempt to convince the FBI to denounce a story that FBI Assistant Director Andrew McCabe called BS.
“What sane person would not want to set the record straight?” Spicer said.
Trump started the day with a tweet blasting the FBI for being unable to stop leakers.
“The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “They can’t even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW.”