President Barack Obama frequently used his trips abroad to highlight the importance of a free press, making leaders from more repressive regimes — from China and Ethiopia to Cuba and Vietnam — stand at his side and answer questions from the media.
On Wednesday afternoon, Obama will direct this message at someone far closer to home: Donald Trump.
In an interview with POLITICO, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama will use his final press conference to highlight his concerns about the restrictions on the media that the president elect put in place during his campaign and transition, and what it might mean for his administration.
“The media environment is challenging and the news media and the journalists who cover the White House will be challenged to rise to the occasion and adapt to the changing environment,” said Earnest, in an interview ahead of Wednesday. “I know the president is interested in showing his support for their efforts to do that.”
Even the location, aides say, is meant to send a message: Rather than heading to the State Dining Room, where many of his larger press conferences have been held, the last public event Obama does as president will be in the White House press briefing room, which Trump aides have said they may abandon in favor of a larger space to accommodate the heightened media interest.
According to Earnest, Obama had long been planning a last press conference, following the model of George W. Bush’s final appearance in the White House briefing room on Jan. 12, 2009, as a thank you and goodbye to the reporters who have covered the president in Washington, across country and around the world over the last eight years. That would have been the plan, he said, had Hillary Clinton won as well.
But Earnest and other aides acknowledge that Trump’s behavior toward the press, from refusing to commit to the traditional “pool” coverage that gives reporters visibility into the actions of any president, to his press conference last week where he shouted down a reporter, has given the event added significance.
Critics point to Obama’s efforts to prosecute whistle blowers and subpoena journalists’ phone records, along with the White House’s preference for YouTube interviews and celebrity sit downs, as being hypocritical. Obama also regularly teases reporters for asking him too many questions at once, which often occurs because reporters feel they rarely get access to the president.
But Obama has used the press to his advantage while abroad, as in Cuba last year, when the president’s staff roped Raúl Castro into a press conference during Obama’s trip to Havana. White House aides at the time told reluctant Cuban officials that there was nothing they could do when Obama finished speaking and was forced call on reporters who shot their hands in the air.
“The challenges that are facing journalists in Cuba and Ethiopia are not as profound as the challenges that are facing the White House press corps,” Earnest said, “but there’s still a principle that’s worth defending, and this is a principle that is worth defending inside the halls of the West Wing as well.”
Obama has made sure to drive that home. In Beijing in November 2014, at a joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jingping, Obama called on a reporter from the New York Times, which was then drawing intense attention for its reporting critical of the Chinese government. Obama smirked and shrugged as Xi at first ignored the reporter’s question, though the Chinese leader eventually returned with a warning that “media outlets need to obey China’s laws and regulations.”
In Ethiopia, which had jailed more journalists just before his arrival in July of 2015, Obama deliberately said in front of the cameras gathered in a room in Haile Selassie’s old palace in Addis Ababa, where a temporary White House network provided rare wireless service in the country that he “didn’t bite my tongue too much” in the private conversation that he’d just had with the prime minister about “freedom of the press and assembly.”
And in Havana, Obama very purposefully called on a reporter whose father had fled Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution to ask a question. When Raúl Castro ducked part of the question, Obama joined in himself from the stage to remind him of what he’d left out of his answer.
That reporter, CNN’s Jim Acosta, happens to have been the same reporter shouted down by Trump at the press conference and derided as being “fake news,” due to the president-elect’s visible anger about the network’s reporting that an unverified but extremely salacious dossier had been included in intelligence briefings given to both Obama and Trump.
The outgoing White House staff has pointedly noted all the access they’ve provided in the last eight years, given the questions that have been raised by the Trump team. Any active journalist—and in practice, a number of people who don’t appear to be actively affiliated with any news organization—has not only been cleared for entry to the briefing room, but many have been regularly called on to ask questions. Though that space on the first floor of the West Wing has gotten crowded (when a woman fainted during Obama’s press conference in December, there was difficulty making space for her to recover) but rarely has there been any issue in accommodating the daily needs.
Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who on Sunday had a two-hour meeting about continued access to the building with White House Correspondents Association Jeff Mason, did not return a request for comment about the point that Obama and his staff are hoping to make. In a statement after their meeting, however, Mason called his discussion “constructive.”
In his own final briefing on Tuesday, Earnest repeatedly spoke of the “uniquely American feature of our democracy” that allows reporters on site to regularly have access to the West Wing and administration officials who work there. He urged reporters to fight to keep those standards, describing both a symbolic importance and actual importance to doing transparent, accountable reporting about the government.
In what seemed deliberate performance art, Earnest let his last briefing stretch past two hours, and called on nearly every reporter whose hand went up, including several from foreign and smaller outlets.
Earnest acknowledged to one reporter that he was feeling sentimental as he signed off.
“It’ll take some getting used to, to see someone else standing up here,” Earnest said, then added with a cynical laugh, “or not.”