MSNBC’s Brian Williams cut to the chase as soon as the Monday press conference between President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended.
“The news out of this gathering is not anything either leader said,” Williams intoned. “It was exactly what wasn’t said because it wasn’t asked.”
“There is no shortage of superb coverage coming out of this White House press corps,” he noted. But, alas, none of those who could be assumed to ask either tough or decidedly relevant questions were called up.
He was correct and, in exhibiting that reality, underscored the premeditated success in the Trump White House in trying to steer their boss to a safe harbor from the potential tempest of spontaneous journalistic rigor.
Every White House controls who will be called upon at a formal press conference or even more informal press briefing. When it comes to joint appearances with another head of state, there are decisions as to how many reporters from each side’s media delegation will be acknowledged.
The White House under Trump intends to kill two birds with one stone virtually every day: Circumvent what it deems antagonistic “liberal” media and give greater voice to more ideologically sympathetic outlets by calling on them.
So on Monday the duo from the U.S. side who were chosen were Scott Thuman, a political reporter for WJLA-TV, the Sinclair-owned ABC affiliate in the nation’s capital, and Kaitlin Collins of the Daily Caller, a conservative digital outlet whose founders include Tucker Carlson, now of Fox News.
Thuman opened by noting some unidentified “philosophical” divisions between the two leaders, asking Trump, “How do you see this relationship playing out and are there any specific area during which you each decided to alter or amend your positions on those sensitive issues?”
Later, Collins would ask Trump, “Now that you have been in office and received intelligence briefings for nearly one month …what do you see as the most important security matters facing us?”
She then asked Trudeau whether he believes that Trump’s “moratorium on immigration has merit on national security grounds.”
It is not to deride the quality of their past work — I’m not in a position to judge since I’m ignorant of the labors of both — to note that all those questions would be deemed a journalism dictionary’s definition of “softball.”
That was especially true with tougher questions that seemed more relevant, including the highly ambiguous, possibly deceitful dealings with Russia by Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, which are among many reasons there is tumult within the National Security Council.
For sure, it is naive to consider any such joint appearance as a conveyance for rigorous journalistic inquisition. Even tough queries can be sidestepped.
And the past should not be prologue when it comes to the traditions of “A-list” media monopolizing the questioning at any presidential event.
But it’s still a far cry from what appears to be the West Wing’s explicit lack of confidence in Trump’s ability to handle even vaguely challenge inquiries — and thus often straining to protect him.
And so Monday it sought — with no ironclad guarantee of success — to do so — and succeeded, in part by avoiding the ambiguities that might have been presented by a sharper line of interrogation.
By comparison, the two Canadian questioners came off as some combination of Jake Tapper, Chris Wallace and Rachel Maddow on steroids.
The first asked whether he saw “Syrian refugees as a Trojan horse for terrorism” and whether he was thus “confident the Northern border is safe.”
Trump’s response was uninspired and did not capture the arguably grotesque disjoint between his new order (now hung up in court) and the reality of Canada, as Trudeau then noted, having accepted 40,000 Syrian refugees.
“You can never be totally confident,” Trump responded, “but through the incredible efforts” of U.S. border security, he said, “We are actually taking people who are very hardened criminals in some cases…and we’re getting them out.”
“I’m just doing what I said I would do,” Trump said. Then, oddly, and perhaps out of lingering insecurity regarding his election, he alluded to his “large Electoral College” victory and making good on campaign promises.
But it also reminded that even a stronger brand of question does not necessarily assure a more illuminating response.