Only a few feet separate those in power and the people who are part of their checks and balances. Fifteen steps. Perhaps 20. They lead across a beige spotted carpet in the White House that has seen better days. A blue sliding door leads from the head of the Briefing Room where Donald Trump's spokesman, Sean Spicer, seeks each day to harmonize the president's world with reality, to the small kingdom of his support staff. With the push of a button, a further sliding door opens on the left to the West Wing, the heart of American power.
The Rose Garden is to the left and on the right is a heavily armed Secret Service man behind a desk. If you leave him and his skeptical gaze behind, you arrive at the door to the Cabinet Room and, beyond it, the Oval Office, where the president spent this afternoon in the week before last negotiating the health care reform bill.
In front of Trump's office are freshly framed and newly hung photographs of the day of his inauguration, with a picture beneath it of the crowds in front of the capital. Spicer has said that never before had an inauguration been as well-attended as Trump's. It was the first fat lie to be told by the new government, one for which Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway even came up with a new term that has come to symbolize this new era: "alternative facts."
In the press Briefing Room, located in the few square feet that separate Trump's living quarters from his office, a heated battle is currently taking place over the balance of power in the United States. At stake is the freedom of the press and the future of liberal democracy in the world. And the importance of truth as the foundation of democratic discourse. If you spend a week in the White House Press Briefing Room, you can learn a lot about how these questions are being negotiated -- between the people spinning Trump's policies and the White House Press Corps, the reporters who cover the presidency on a daily basis.
A narrow hallway leads to the right of the Oval Office to Spicer's office. The door opens and there stands Spicer, wearing a white shirt and wide tie, but no jacket. "What's up?" Upon learning his guest is from Germany, Spicer explains how he made a call that morning to his counterpart in Berlin to prepare for the chancellor's visit, which took place last Friday. He looks over at his secretary and asks, "What was the guy's name again?" She quickly looks it up. "Seibert, that's right. Nice guy!"
An Inflamed Climate
A massive television is mounted on the wall above the secretary, and the country's four major news channels are all running simultaneously. But the audio is only turned on for Fox News, the conservative broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch that helped over the years to create the current inflamed societal climate, without which it is hard to imagine Trump ever having been elected.
What does Spicer have to say about the relationship between the new administration and the media, which the president has described as "the enemy of the people"?
"Oh, there are always tensions between the government and the press," Spicer says, smiling. He says he makes a real effort to be friendly and that he tries to take questions from as many reporters as possible during briefings. He's open to all questions, he adds, one can't expect more than that. He says he also knows that Trump's sharp rhetoric doesn't play well with journalists. "But that just happens to be the way the president thinks." And he has reasons for thinking that way, Spicer says, noting that there are unfortunately many incorrect reports about Donald Trump and his government. "That's why we are going to fight hard against Fake News in the future."
There's that term again, one which Spicer and Trump like to drop each day in an attempt to further destroy trust in the work done by journalists. Spicer laughs and pats his visitor on the shoulder. Here in his office, without the presence of cameras, he comes across a lot more charming and chummy than he does during his almost daily appearances behind the lectern of the Briefing Room to unironically disseminate Trump's latest rallying cry. He acts as though it were all just a big game, as if there were no attempt being made to intimidate newspapers, broadcasters and their reporters. As if there were no attempt being made to destroy the consensus about what is a truth and what is a lie.
Higher Ratings than a Soap
Since Donald Trump's election, the White House briefing room has been more packed than ever before. The 49 permanent seats, which include a silver plaque at the foot featuring the name of the medium, are all filled. Double that many reporters can usually be found crammed to the sides and along the back wall. The press briefing, once a boring affair, is now broadcast live on several stations. Over 4 million people watch it each day, providing it with ratings that are better than most afternoon soap operas. Part of the attraction for viewers is the palpable tension that can be felt in the room each day -- and not only between the press and the government. The Briefing Room has also transformed into the site of a battle by the new conservative media against the journalism establishment. The divide currently being seen across the country also runs through the press corps.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2017 (March 18, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.
When Sean Spicer enters the Briefing Room on Thursday, March 9, CNN correspondent Jim Acosta is broadcasting live on air. He is standing in front of his regular seat -- the first seat to the right in the front row -- and speaking loudly toward his camera at the back of the room. It isn't just the millions of CNN viewers who are listening to him, but also Acosta's 150 colleagues in the room. And Spicer.
"I don't want to interrupt you," Spicer says, attempting a smile. Acosta ends his segment. "You can start."
"No, no," Spicer counters. "Whenever you're ready." He grins, and this despite Acosta currently being one of the Trump administration's primary enemies. During a press conference shortly before his inauguration, Trump made a threatening gesture at him and ordered him to shut his mouth, refusing his right to ask a question with the words: "You are fake news!"
Acosta is one of the most jovial and modest reporters in the entire White House Press Corps, where ego and ability aren't always in direct proportion to one another. But these days, Acosta neither can nor wants to discuss his relationship with the government. Many other reporters are in the same position. It appears that the attempts to intimidate are having an effect.
Protected By the Constitution
If Trump and Spicer had their way, Acosta would no longer be allowed in; they wanted to ban him from the White House. But Jeff Mason, who sits next to him in the Briefing Room in the first row, second seat, went to bat for his colleague. Mason is a correspondent for Reuters and the chair of the White House Correspondents' Association, which represents the interests of the reporters covering the president here. Mason was born in Germany as the son of an American soldier and later returned for several years as a correspondent in Frankfurt and Berlin. He speaks fluent German.
"We're not the enemy of the people," says Mason, who has wedged himself into one of the narrow seats in his elegant pinstripe suit. "It isn't acceptable for the president to just say something like that. That's not OK," he says. Mason speaks quietly, trying to remain calm and even-keeled and to counter Trump's aggression with composure. His colleagues call him the diplomat. "As journalists, we have an important role for our democracy," says Mason. "It is protected by the Constitution."
Mason wages a daily battle over the degree to which this protection is still valued under the Trump administration. Even before the new president took office, it was revealed that his team was considering removing the press from their traditional rooms in the White House. Mason walks out the door of the Briefing Room and points up to a semi-circular window in the White House residence where Trump lives. Franklin D. Roosevelt's swimming pool, he says, used to be in what is today's Briefing Room. The fact that the media ultimately moved into part of the White House is a symbol of a time in which the U.S. was considered a global role model for press freedom, the separation of powers and democracy.
"I never even would have thought we would have to have a discussion about whether or not we are allowed to stay here," Mason says. His next fight was over whether reporters would be allowed to continue traveling with Trump on Air Force One. Trump and his close advisors also wanted to eliminate that tradition.
More attacks followed. Mason sought to prevent Acosta's ouster in a private conversation with Spicer, but then, three weeks ago, instead of inviting the media to the normal press conference, Spicer invited select outlets to a meeting in his office. He didn't, however, invite those outlets that have been most vocal in their criticism of the Trump administration, including the New York Times, CNN and Politico. He did, however, invite right-wing outlets like Breitbart News, the Washington Times and the One America News Network. Mason protested as did the editors-in-chief of the major newspapers and Spicer hasn't held anymore private press conferences since.
Is the Free Press Threatened?
Is freedom of the press truly under fire in the United States? And Is the president a danger to democracy? "I'd rather not comment on that," says Mason, the diplomat, and glances over to the West Wing entrance as though to ensure that none of those in power are listening. "In any case, I'm fighting to make sure that things stay democratic."
Others are less optimistic. "These attacks threaten the American democracy," says Joel Simon, who heads the Committee to Protect Journalists, an American organization that was originally founded to strengthen press freedom around the world. Now the organization's focus is largely on developments in its own country. The U.S., Simon says, had long been viewed as a beacon of light when it came to freedom of the press. That, though, has changed since Trump and his "fake news" talk, he says. "We'll be laughed at when we turn up in authoritarian states and criticize the lack of press freedom," he says. "Trump is a gift to all the autocrats and dictators of this world."
Recently, Sean Spicer has been asked almost every day about a tweet sent out by the president on Saturday, March 4, at 6:35 a.m. "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory," he wrote. "Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" A short time later, he added, "This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"
It's a tremendous and unprecedented accusation of a sitting president to make against his predecessor. In the days that followed, journalists tried every day to push Spicer to share with them the evidence Trump had to back the accusation. Did the president not, after all, have access to all the information that could prove his allegation? They also asked if Spicer personally believed that Obama wiretapped Trump?
It seems safe to say that they were the worst moments for Spicer since he came on board as White House spokesman. He stuttered and his eyelids twitched. How was he supposed to explain the nonsense his boss had spewed out on Twitter early in the morning? He wriggled and tried to get rid of the issue by calling on a reporter he knew would throw him a softball question.
There is everything to suggest that Trump, who enjoys access to all intelligence information, based his claim solely on reports originating from media that promote right-wing conspiracy theories. It was the same way he arrived at his recent conclusion that Sweden is in a horrific state.
Last Thursday, after Spicer had spent a particularly long time stammering about the wire-tapping accusations, a co-worker appeared and stuck a yellow Post-it note on his lectern. Soon thereafter, he returned to the issue -- and this time he was much clearer and more decisive. Spicer is often handed notes during his briefings. The week before last, it happened twice.
Many journalists believe that Trump follows Spicer's appearances and that the Post-its are his way of intervening. And it is conspicuous that Trump rarely has meetings scheduled during the press conferences.
Trump would likely rather take on Spicer's job himself. He often complains about his spokesman's appearances, and not just about his ill-fitting suits. It has been reported that he was especially irritated about actress Melissa McCarthy's devastating parody of Spicer on Saturday Night Live, which he believed undermined his authority. For narcissists like Trump, the media remains the biggest and most important mirror, even as president.
Discrediting and Obstructing the Mainstream Media
Mike McCurry didn't have such problems. His boss Bill Clinton preferred playing basketball over watching the press conferences, he says. McCurry is sitting at the bar of the National Press Club in Washington and asks if it's too early for a martini. It's 11 a.m. His shirt is unbuttoned and he exudes the same kind of coolness his former boss possessed. McCurry was Clinton's spokesman during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
McCurry says he has sympathy for his successor Spicer, for example when he was forced to lie about the size of the crowd attending the inauguration ceremony. "He made that claim for a single person," says McCurry, "the president himself."
McCurry knows how it feels for a spokesperson when their boss is lying. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." When he quotes those famous words, he mimes the former president's expression and runs his pointer finger through the air the way Clinton did on television at the time. "It's a very unhappy memory," McCurry says. "Bill's statement, as you know, turned out not to be 100 percent accurate." In contrast to Trump, however, who has yet to apologize for anything, Clinton did provide one -- to McCurry and to 275 million Americans.
Plus, with Trump lies tend to be the rule rather than the exception. He has said he won the most Electoral College votes since Ronald Reagan, even though three other presidents since then have received more. Then he claims that more than 3 million people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.
McCurry says that, through his office, the president of the United States has the loudest voice in the world and that nobody can attract more attention. And if that voice is constantly used to spread lies, then it constitutes an attack on the truth.
Before Trump, every president accepted that the press plays an important role in the country's democracy. That it is the media's job to scrutinize the government in power and to challenge it. McCurry says Clinton used to get very upset by reports, but he never admitted as much in public, and that's the difference.
McCurry believes that Trump would like to curtail press freedom. "If he could issue an order that the only coverage allowed of him was positive, he would do so without delay."
The New Right Media
For the moment, Trump and Spicer have chosen a different path. They are instead seeking to discredit and obstruct traditional media outlets while at the same time providing support to nascent right-wing media that are sympathetic to their cause.
Among the winners in this new age is Jennifer Wishon. She's sitting in the basement in the area of the West Wing where correspondents do their work. Journalists here have always been provided with conditions that are about as comfortable as the pens on a chicken farm, but Wishon has been a bit luckier than others -- she's been provided with a relatively large cubbyhole of about 17 square feet and even has a door to cut off the bustle. It's big enough for a small desk, a chair and Wishon.
Wishon works for the Christian Broadcasting Network, which is largely viewed by evangelical Christians who count among Trump's biggest supporters. She apologizes for her shortness of breath and points to her belly, saying she's pregnant. Then she points to the black curtain in front of the window on the door. Her office, she says, is now called the "Breast Wing" because she has invited female colleagues to pump milk here in peace.
During the Obama years, Wishon sat in the last row of the Briefing Room and almost never got picked for questions. Since Trump has been in office, she has been able to ask questions almost every day. During Spicer's first press briefing, she even got to ask the second question. And during Trump's press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, her colleague got to ask one of the two questions journalists were able to pose. Then the president gave the broadcaster one of two exclusive interviews he granted. "There are many firsts for us now," Wishon says. "The difference is like day and night. It's wonderful for us."
It used to be that the first question almost always went to a news wire -- first The Associated Press, then Reuters and then came the major TV stations because they had the most viewers. But this old order has been turned on its head. Wishon says that when Trump describes the media as the enemy of the people, he is saying what conservative America has been thinking for an eternity. After all, the liberal media supports abortion, gay marriage and restrooms for transsexuals.
Wishon is perhaps the most candid among those profiting from this new era. Odder are all the young men and women in dashing suits and tight outfits who have been placing themselves in strategic spots in the Briefing Room in order to catch Spicer's attention. He derives great pleasure in overlooking the established media and instead calling on newer organizations that no one had even heard of a short time ago and who are more than happy to ask non-threatening questions.
'That's What I Call a Nice Question'
At Trump's first press conference, he called on a 19-year-old admirer who had recently established his own internet channel. His question was about the first lady. "Mr. President," he said, "Melania Trump announced the reopening of the White House Visitors Office. And she does a lot of great work for the country as well. Can you tell us a little bit about what first lady Melania Trump does for the country?"
"Now, that's what I call a nice question," he answered. "That is very -- who are you with?"
"UNF news," the 19-year-old answered.
"Good," the president said. "I'm going to start watching, all right?" He then went on to explain in-depth just how magnificent his wife is for the country.
Twenty-three-year-old Trey Yingst of the One American News Network is among the most eager beavers in the room. He can often be seen nodding along as Spicer speaks and he is the first to raise his hand when Spicer finishes his statements. The company he works for began broadcasting three years ago as an alternative to Fox News that is even further to the right.
On this particular Wednesday, Yingst is congratulated by his colleagues at Breitbart News because he got to ask two questions during the previous day's briefing. "Yeah, it's great," he says. "I hope i can keep up the momentum." Right after asking a harmless question, he immediately checks the two smart phones he has placed in front of him to see the response on Facebook and Twitter.
Trolling the Old Media
The new right-wing media like One America, Newsmax, the Daily Caller or LifeZette are enjoying the full support of the current administration. Indeed, they are being used to unsettle the old media, to take question time away from them, to disrupt the usual procedures and to challenge the old system. The idea is to call into question the credibility of the experienced, independent and reporting-intensive publishers and broadcasters and to deny their legitimacy.
The defining medium of the new right is Breitbart News, whose former CEO Stephen Bannon now sits in the Oval Office as the White House's chief strategist. Bannon had spent years yearning for this new era and he personally pushed for these new media groups to be provided with access to the White House Press Corps.
On Friday, before the beginning of the briefing, a loud argument erupts. Jon Decker, an experienced radio correspondent for Fox News Radio, which in the era of Trump almost seems like the established media, complains loudly about the presence of Lucian Wintrich, a 28-year-old who is supposed to represent the right-wing radical blog Gateway Pundit at the White House. Gateway Pundit is notorious for its crude conspiracy theories and headlines like, "Dental Expert: Hillary Clinton Is Suffering from Serious Gum Infection and Immune Disorder." The Trump administration was the first to provide the blog with White House accreditation and Wintrich had never before worked as a journalist.
Decker calls out loudly that the reporter, Wintrich, was from a medium that "hates blacks, Jews and Hispanics." He's stunned that Trump's White House actually allow this poser journalist in. Many colleagues pat him on the shoulder in thanks.
A reporter from the New Yorker was recently able to observe how Wintrich and his boss Jim Hoft prepared for the first appearance in the press corps and what questions he might ask. "Just make sure it has 'fake news' in it, Lucian," Hoft said. "Every question you ask with the words 'fake news,' you get a ten-dollar bonus." His main job is not to report about politics -- it's to rile the "liberal mainstream media" and their "ridiculous hypocrisy" or, better yet, to make them look bad.
After the briefing, Wintrich held his own press conference. He stood smoking and wearing sunglasses in front of the door to the Briefing Room and accused the "fake news correspondent" from Fox of having physically attacked and insulted him.
'We're the Fabled Boiling Frog'
"We haven't yet even realized how devastating this corrosive effect will be in the long term," says Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist in his office located not far from the White House. "Trump is attempting to drive journalists crazy so that one day we really will go crazy and he can then turn around and tell his supporters: I told you they are crazy."
With his constant barrage of fresh lies, Trump is gradually altering the country. "We're the fabled boiling frog," says Friedman. Each week Trump turns the temperature up a little higher. At first people don't notice, but at some point the water starts to boil. "And then we're dead." By that, he means journalists. But the metaphor could also be extended to society as a whole.
At the end of the week, Sean Spicer enters the Briefing Room with some exciting news. The new labor market data has come in. On the campaign trail, Trump had constantly dismissed such data as a "hoax." "Don't believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment," Trump had said. "The number is probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even recently heard 42 percent."
But on this day, the news is that the unemployment rate, as had already been the case under the Obama administration, is continuing to shrink. A journalist in the briefing asks if the president actually believes the numbers. "Yeah, I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly," Spicer says jovially. "'They may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now.'"
The statement is insolent in the extreme, an intellectual insult. But nobody protested. Maybe you start to get tired if you are attacked day after day. Maybe you simply get used to any system, regardless of how absurd it is. Whatever the case, when Spicer quoted his boss, the Briefing Room erupted in laughter.